Street art is born to die, at the mercy of the street and its consequences. In the very idea of its creation, there is no desire to strive for eternity. And it is the street where the work is created, in dialogue with the environment that surrounds it. Content and context complete each other, if one of the two aspects is missing, we have the mutilation of poetics. More and more often, for speculative reasons, we observe incoherent attempts to extrapolate, musealize and conserve Street Art, toxic practices that ruin its meaning and deep motivations, turning it into a collector’s fetish, a phenomenon for exhibitions and ticketing, the opposite of what it was born for. The only honest attempt not to disperse the existence of the interventions that are produced over time, while maintaining their meaning and respecting them, is the more or less organized photographic documentation that places the works in time and place. A brilliant example of this is the archive that Guerrilla Spam has created about their works.
The influence of street art, with all its poetic baggage, has greatly reshaped the mythical notion that a work of art outlives its creator. Street artists have chosen streets and squares as the place for their artistic manifestation. They cut into the living flesh of the city and enter the game of public space by challenging the market and the classic containers of art. Their interventions, whether illegal or legal, once made, are at the mercy of the winds and time: Authorities order their removal, writers intervene on them, citizens want to appropriate them, or the artists themselves decide to demolish them. In Bologna, the street artist Blu caused an uproar a few years ago when he removed his murals in protest against an exhibition of works taken from the street. The destructive act of the author became a much more powerful gesture than his creation.
Let’s take another example and go to Berlin in 1986. On October 23, at the invitation of the Mauermuseum (the Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie), American artist Keith Haring created a 300-meter-long work on the western façade of the Berlin Wall, showing a horizontal chain of his classic human figures painted in red and black on a yellow background and connected by joining hands and feet. On the wall, which prevented free movement between East and West Berlin and was a symbol of division and conflict, Haring depicted unity and oneness by using the colors of the two German flags. The action attracted the attention of citizens and the media, which documented the action, although the work was partially covered with gray paint a few hours after its completion. Haring simply explained that this was the fate of all graffiti: to be temporary. Within a few weeks, the mural became illegible and covered by graffiti from other writers. Three years later, the Berlin Wall was torn down.
Destroy the wall through painting it is Haring’s artistic intention, who used public space with awareness, interpreted the historical context by interacting with that specific reality, not with other realities. He placed his work in Berlin in the here and now, fully inserting himself in the dynamics of confrontation, of clash, of transformation of that place and of that historical moment.
After all, cities are living organisms: they mutate and change, destroy and build, think and rethink, more or less quickly, nourished by the intricate network of human activities, a complex and multilayered system of people, social systems, buildings, infrastructures, services and materials necessary to sustain the lives of citizens at home, at work and at leisure. Add to this the impact and sedimentation of history, individual stories, and time, all amidst the rapid economic, political, and cultural changes that are occurring. Understanding this, and considering that urban art is that kind of artistic creation that inserts itself into the social fabric and the urban structure of cities, we cannot think that its insertion can be born with the idea of resisting in time or, much less, tending to eternity.
Over the years, public administrations have approached street art in a not very balanced way, vacillating between sheriffs and philanthropists. On the one hand, the legality of an intervention is the only criterion for evaluation, so it is removed and the artist denounced. On the other hand, murals are commissioned and promoted in the presence of the mayor with ribbons being cut.
Admittedly, it is not easy for a municipality to find the right measure for dealing with street art. And in itself, there is nothing illegitimate about these two different approaches. However, it is often less about creating the best conditions for an artist to fully express themselves and more about finding a propagandistic consensus among citizens. For an institution, sponsoring an urban art intervention on a gray facade of a large suburban building and transforming it into something colorful, generates attention and support with minimal effort. However, the point is to distinguish between an artistic work and a colored whitewash. Certainly, a colored wall is already better than an anonymous gray wall in certain contexts, but is that enough? I don’t think so. The difference between an artist and a good painter must be known and recognized, otherwise there is a danger of falling into the decorative, the solemn, the politically correct, and the decontextualized. If this work can be replicated on a thousand other walls beyond the context, it means that we are facing a lost opportunity.
A councilor for culture cannot and must not take the place of the artist or the art director. His task is to create the playing field in which the artistic and cultural dimension can be fully produced, developed and manifested, in which an artist can immerse and act in the public context with the greatest possible freedom of intervention, with all the associated “risks”, without distorting the foundations of his aesthetic vision. To understand the artistic poetics, to achieve a flexibility of judgment that allows not to have to cancel illegal interventions, nor to strive to preserve them over time, like tabernacles that must be preserved just because they are funded or sponsored.
If you want someone to be forgotten, build a life-size bronze statue and put it in the middle of the city.
– Lorenzo Zambini
Haring’s example in Berlin is paradigmatic: the mission of urban art in its most authentic, radical, and vibrant forms becomes an active part of the debate, cutting, wounding, and healing the skin of public space, breaking down solemn intentions and museum perspectives, not striving for eternity but consciously practicing impermanence.
Not least because it is not necessary to exist in order to be remembered. Every day we are exposed to a constant stimulation of images, an overflowing visual and information noise reaches us and penetrates us, causing a lack of concentration and memory loss, because in the chaos of abundance, in the constant present, it is difficult to select and remember. When the artist is in the best position to act, he can trigger a short circuit, create a scar in society that gives meaning and memory to what he wants to convey. It doesn’t matter if the work will physically endure. What matters is that it touches the conscience, stirs public opinion and generates electricity. It is not a problem of duration, because “a rainbow that lasts a quarter of an hour will never be looked at again.” The decorations and solemn intentions, with their consolation and prudence, even if they exist, they are not seen, they do not speak, these acts are forgotten while they happen, they produce the same effect as any bronze Garibaldi on horseback.