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Street Art: Is it art?

Following the pardoning of street artist Tom Dewhurst, Emily Henderson urges us to "escape this 'edgy' lens of what art is, and see the reality of something that is illegal."

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photo credit: Paul Heyes
photo credit: Paul Heyes

At some point in our lives, we have all encountered Banksy, the majority of the population are aware of his style of 'art'. Equally, most of us are familiar with graffiti that has come to adorn our streets in an expressive form of vandalism. Following a trial in which street artist Tom Dewhurst, was arrested, he was labelled by the judge as the 'next Banksy' and was hugely pardoned. It raises a series of questions, namely, what art is and where graffiti sits within this ever growing spectrum?

Over the past 10 years, our society has grown ever familiar with the sight of graffiti, yet our increasing familiarity should not lead to our acceptance of it as a form of art. Indeed, many urban areas are also dappled with litter that degrades its surroundings, yet we see those that put it there as inconsiderate lawbreakers not revolutionary artists. Then why is it that graffiti has been put on such a pedestal? Banksy's art has gained an incredible audience, with most of us aware of at least some of his work, but this should not allow it to gain revolutionary status.

All this work seems to do is glorify vandalism

Instead, his appeal has grown due to his anonymity as we try to determine exactly who Banksy is; 'who is this guy and how is he getting away with it'. Dewhurst lacks this, his shiny coat of anonymity has been rubbed off as his public court hearing has offered us a face to go alongside his graffiti, are we, therefore, just elevating a vandal? All this work seems to do is glorify vandalism, making a lack of respect appear to be some meaningful point and statement against society.

However, doesn't that simply make where you (and thousands of others) live worse? Regardless of how brilliantly talented Dewhurst or indeed any graffiti artist is, residents of an area probably don't want their buildings defaced with an ever-predictable statement against capitalism. If somewhere is treated with a lack of respect, then it merely degrades the place further. Banksy would reply that his work is an 'underclass revenge' but in his supposed criticisms of capitalism and fascism, he is forcing people to look at his work; it is easy to gain notoriety when people have nowhere else to look. Thereupon, the Dewhurst case seems clearly biased to one side as it is giving one man a free license to the paths people take to walk home or the buildings they drive past every day as they go to work. It appears that these 'street artists' seem to think that they are doing the general public a favour, making us look at the reality of our lives, yet few know that through his ventures, Banksy himself has built up a net worth of $20 million.

No two human beings can share the exact same opinion, such is the nature of our minds. There can be similarities but that is all. In this respect, Banksy's 'witty social commentary' is not the personal taste of everyone, therefore, for a judge -who is employed to provide justice for the masses- to rely on his own artistic taste when dealing with a criminal, is in itself, criminal.

The judge's agreement of what he feels is art is in no way a consensus. Art can instead be deemed anything, as it is a personal opinion, much like the way some modern art pieces can sell for millions yet I may think are worthless. Thus, both Banksy and now a judge through the pardoning of Dewhurst, force others to look at what they feel to be art. If the people of a city want capitalism, then let the people have capitalism. The ironic thing is that whilst Banksy and street art criticises us for capitalism and our supposed greed, as mentioned earlier, they themselves are making masses of money from this.

We can choose to go to a gallery, a Caravaggio exhibition will entice a very different crowd to an Emin installation yet we remain in control of our exposure to this art.

The Dewhurst case is a wonderful example of how personal preference of someone in a position of power can alternate the viewing patterns of millions, whether that person be the judge, or the street artists themselves. One could compare however, that the work isn't dissimilar to that of an advertisement. Every day we are forced to see billboards pushing some kind of product at us, with companies controlling what we see at a bus stop or our drive to work. Yet, this is not a direct criticism of how we choose to live our lives as Banksy or Dewhurst portray.

Equally, companies want to maintain a good reputation and keep favour with the masses meaning that there is some element of control with where and how much they are advertised. Furthermore, there are limited areas for advertisements whereas street art has the entire city for its supposed canvas. Consequently, an issue becomes apparent of where does this art belong? Supposing that we were to put all of the pieces in a gallery- the work instantly loses its wit and appeal as no longer is it a cry for anarchy from the outspoken man. Therefore, the Dewhurst case has allowed an excuse for vandalism, for someone to not have to abide by the law as long as it is done in an artistic way.

There is a definite difference between enjoying a painting on a canvas and then allowing something to be painted on a building, whether you enjoy this type of art or not. Yet, we have to escape this 'edgy' lens of what art is, and see the reality of something that is illegal.

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