Is Street Art…Art?

By Georgia Schoonmaker


For as long as artists have been creating, this question has been asked too many times to count: what defines art? And even more so, who should answer this question? – the artist or the viewer?

At Artsmith, we love bringing our students together to explore all types of arts-related questions and promoting the benefits of the Arts in our wider community.

Recently, we held our inaugural t-shirt design contest, which brought street art to the forefront. This kind of art has shaped and influenced New York City and its art scene for years, and holds a lot of importance in the art world.

For instance, graffiti of one sort or another has existed for a long time. Many believe that some cave paintings are an ancient form of graffiti. Today, people use street art and graffiti in numerous ways, for various purposes. The art form has been used in protest – against governments, institutions, or general injustices, and as a means of self-expression.

In New York, it exploded onto the scene in Washington Heights in the 1970s, before moving into the subways and from there all across the city. Crackdowns began in the mid ‘90s, but graffiti has remained a prominent and popular form of art and rebellion throughout this city and many others.

Over the years, many mainstream artists – including Banksy, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Shepard Fairey, and others – have created work in this medium and have been featured in museums and galleries all over the world. Banksy started out in the 1990s as a graffiti artist and muralist, creating works on the streets of Bristol, England. Today, his art fetches hundreds of thousands at auction houses in the United States and the UK.

Fairey gained national fame when his stencil-inspired portrait of Barack Obama became the official poster of the former president’s 2008 election campaign. Fairey’s path was much different from Banksy’s, however, as he attended the Rhode Island School of Design and earned a BA in Illustration before being featured in traditional exhibitions. While he took a more “traditional” path toward becoming an artist, recognizing its history and impact, he embraced street art.

What’s the difference between these artists’ work and the images we pass daily on the streets of New York City? While the average signature or “tag” is often considered vandalism, there is beauty to be found in all of them. There’s a story behind each one inspiring that specific artist to create.

In terms of accessibility, street art is available and free to everyone, which may be a plus for many New Yorkers who cannot afford regular gallery or museum visits. Banksy described his first independent exhibition in London, which was held in a public tunnel:

We hung up some decorators’ signs nicked off a building site, and painted the walls white wearing overalls. We got the artwork up in 25 minutes and held an opening party later that week with beers and some hip-hop pumping out of the back of a Transit van. About 500 people turned up to an opening which had cost almost nothing to set up.” In addition, he has spoken of the appeal of street art’s accessibility, stating: “There’s a whole new audience out there, and it’s never been easier to sell [one’s art] . . . This is the first time the essentially bourgeois world of art has belonged to the people.

Ultimately, I’m not sure anyone can or should definitively say what defines art. Art of every kind exists for the pleasure of those who create and experience it. Each of us takes something completely different from viewing a painting, seeing a play, hearing a song, or passing a spray-painted picture on the side of a building. And that is the true beauty of art – its ability to transform from moment to moment, person to person, experience to experience, and to become something personal and beautiful and different each time.

What do you think?

Is street art art? Tell us your thoughts!

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