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(Mostly Some) Art in the Streets (of the USA)
on September 9, 2011
Art in the Streets, the Jeffrey Deitch curated show, has been quite an unavoidable and influential topic in street art circles this year, in particular for those of us related to the USA where it was fairly pervasive. The catalogue offers what seems to be a good overview of the show, but it also shines in its flaws.
While it may seem from a distance that the book offers a general or dedicated overview of street cultures, what it does explicitly is take the rise of graffiti cultures in New York, highlights them with a few touches of history here and there, and argues rapidly for its unequivocal influence with a few international examples, and a revolving narrative about its legacy and expansion in the States.
This US centrism would not be a problem, and could be quite a legitimate area to focus given the background and knowledge of the curating team. There is obviously plenty to share and claim from the US influence and experience as a way of opening debates of public art, sanctioned and informal cultures, etc. But it lingers to easily on a disregard of history, on a "me first" attitude commonly seen in other areas, that pushes precedents to a footnote, if not ignored altogether, and glorifies own events above all else. In fact, it ignores rather willingly the processes of cultural colonization of which it is part.
But probably the biggest flaw of the volume and project lies in not what it is but in what it chooses to leave out, and its lack of open processes, which is a common problem in endeavors that pretend to be comprehensive. Here the biggest omission is not only an attempt to explore the mechanisms of public dispute, of political engagement and disengagement, that art in the streets represents, but the glaring omission of those polemics where the show is a central acting character, and where it could offer a polemic insight.
There are a few notable stories in this regard, but obviously the one around the work of Blu, which is prominently displayed in a 4 page spread, including a double page bleeding shot of the work that the Museum Director and main organizer of the exhibit Jeffrey Deitch had himself ordered buffed. Publishing requirements aside, it is quite a glaring omission. And it is also quite telling of the curatorial mechanism and ranges of polemics that the topic generates. Likewise, probably the local impact, and discourses from authorities, mainstream media, and other conservative organizations around the claimed negative impact that a show glorifying vandalism has on communities may also deserve a note elsewhere. For instance, the polemic arising from from the trite MacDonal's Essay, which supposedly triggered the cancellation of the same show in Brooklyn is worth noting. But of course, here we are already looking at processes spurned by the exhibition, which an old fashion catalogue has no interest and capacity to include.
The catalogue, despite the regular suspects and that self-centered vision of the culture it aims to represent has some redeeming qualities. It is questionable whether this celebration of Street Art will help promote the culture instead of stereotyping it more, and facilitate its continued passive absorption in some sectors. But by the same token of US centrism that permeates most of the volume, some of the most interesting interviews and sections precisely dig in that area, despite that it is a fairly well documented aspect elsewhere.
Of all the essays, the closing one by Diedrich Diederichsen "Street Art as a Threshold Phenomenon" while not free of some general defects of the overall project is the only one that explores a more complex overview of the mechanisms that shape the culture that the volume is trying to apprehend.
Other than that the volume offers a perfunctory chronology that starts in 1941 with Kilroy was here, and dwells in plenty of US milestones peppered with growing international notes as the timeline progresses as if that were to prove the direct influence of US street culture in the world, passing over glaring simplifications about the colonization exercised by the USA, physically and culturally through the years that would explain more accurately certain aspects of that influence.
Unfortunately the book might serve ultimately as soft propaganda candy, and maybe a good entry overview of some segmented phenomenon related to urban cultures.