In recent years, street art has emerged as a new art phenomenon, with artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey gaining greater acclaim and recognition in communities all over the world. However, this controversial practice has also provoked a lot of opposition. Alex Gardega describes his work to be “soulless and flavourless.” This street art hate is not new. The question is, why? Why do people have such a strong dislike towards the practice?
Art is an experience. The evaluation of art has been a field of psychological study that started as early as the 1800s. In 2004, psychology scholars divided factors that affect the interpretation of art into three groups: aesthetic components of the piece, personal traits of the viewer, and context. Prior to the emergence of Modernism in the 1960’s, art was solely evaluated on its visual components. But as attributes of artworks changed, non-aesthetic features became more important in the evaluation of artworks.
So what is the relation between these psychological processes and the experience of street art? And why is it so different than experiencing other art?
Personal characteristics of the viewer influence their evaluation of the art. In street art, those who understand how to interpret the art and have interest in it will have a greater appreciation for the work.
Imagine two people in a contemporary art museum. The first person is a modern art enthusiast who has been exposed to all different artworks and understands how to interpret the abstract masterpieces. The other person, on the other hand, has only been exposed to institutional art like that of Michelangelo and Da Vinci. Between the two, the one who knows how to interpret the art would be more receptive and overall would have a much better experience with the contemporary art.
The dislike for street art is worsened when people align it with graffiti. This association negatively effects people’s opinions on street art because graffiti is often seen as illegal writing and vandalism. However, there are major differences between the two practices that make the illegality arguments irrelevant. In contrast to graffiti, which destroys a space, the purpose of street art is to reinvent and reconstruct a space. Street art adorns the urban space whereas graffiti accelerates its decay. But the most important distinguishing factor between the two is the meaning and function of street art, which can only be understood if the viewer looks both the non-aesthetic and aesthetic components.
As mentioned earlier, traditionally in institutional art, only aesthetic features were to be considered in the interpretation of artworks. However, street art challenges this principle because there are so many non-aesthetic features that are crucial to the purpose of street art. The medium, subject matter, overall artistic appeal, and, most importantly, the context are all crucial to the deep meanings of street artworks. I argue that many people are unsusceptible to street art because they don’t recognize these important non-aesthetic features.
The receptiveness to street art can be increased with better understanding and better avail of its salient components, namely its site-specificness.
Why is it important to appreciate street art?
I believe that street artists have the power to touch people in different communities using the elements that make it so compelling, namely its site-specificness. Street artists can also reach a wider audience by taking into account the personal characteristics of people in certain areas. Street art has to power to promote democracy, transform space, and make people feel like they are a part of the urban space in which they inhabit. They can utilize the power of the transfiguration of space to make people feel they can identify themselves with the city in which they reside.