Friday, August 28, 2009

Steal This Art

A couple posts ago I alluded to an exhibitor at the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Fest who gave me pause. The guy collects street art and hosted a pretty breathtaking installation in an old shoe store along the festival route.

He basically goes on reconnaissance missions to uproot each piece from its original context (building walls, signposts, fences, etc). He fashions himself a Robin Hood of the built environment, claiming that the pieces are, by design, ephemeral: If he doesn't take and protect them, the police will, and they'll disappear from public view altogether. Not a single piece he owns is for sale. Once it's in his possession, it's his to keep.

His collection includes work by noted Chicago koo-koo Wesley Willis (RIP) as well as some fly three-dimensional buildings by Wesley's far less well-known brother Ricky. There are tributes to the murdered artist Solve, though somewhat gratefully not a single original Solve work. (He seems to consider Solve his holy grail.) I still see Solve's handiwork on signs now and again and feel nervous for it, imagining this guy heffalumping his way through the public domain and then all the way to the bank.

So I struggle. On the one hand, the work was amazing to see, easily some of my favorite pieces in the show. Your heart beats a little faster to be in their presence. And it's true: I probably would never have had the pleasure of experiencing them without this guy's intervention.

On the other hand, do the pieces mean the same hanging on an exhibit wall as they do in the public context? (Of course they don't, but how damaging is that slippery geography to the overall meaning of the work? Negligible? Monumental?) And to what extent is the guy participating in the very tradition of the artists themselves, vs. claiming production he has no right to call his own?

SOS: Is he a noble preservationist or a rotten thief? And is looking at this material at an art show a fair exercise, or something akin to ambulence chasing? A penny for your thoughts.


Whetstone said...

Wow - that's a fascinating dilemma. I get his intention, and I'm sympathetic to it, but I think I lean more towards not interfering with the artist's intent.

Then again, it's possible he'll mount an exhibition decades from now, and I'll be grateful that he did it. I'm perplexed.

leslie said...

I think his theory has merit to a point, but it's weak. Yes, these would probably be thrown in a dumpster, so saving them is a good thing. However, subverting the authorities also subverts the artist's intent and shortens the street life of the work—which denies future viewers the right to see/encounter it.

It falls apart completely when he hangs it in a gallery/exhibition space. If that was the intent of the artist, that would be the avenue taken. These works are meant to be on the street.

That said, I think most street artists give up their work to whatever comes along. They'd probably just shrug their shoulders at this argument. Street art is temporary and its trajectory unpredictable.

tracy said...

I'm finding it hard to take sides.

It seems kind of wrong to preserve something that was meant to be impermanent, but I like that there are no dollars at work in his intentions with these pieces. I do like that I am getting to see these pieces, too, when I wouldn't otherwise be able to . . . but then I'm not the intended audience: they're for the street spaces and the people who use them on a daily basis.

I find myself wanting to extend this test to other spaces/public design and see if we feel the same way: what about someone who has preserved a piece of graffiti from the Berlin Wall, mortar and all? okay, or not? What about someone who has salvaged an old, hand-painted business sign from a village in Mexico and hung it in the kitchen of a house in Denver?

And I just have to say: I love those little buildings in the exhibit!

Rosemary said...

What's really a shame is that there isn't a public entity taking on the task of collecting and preserving these works--local arts councils or museums, perhaps. Their being removed from their context troubles me, but not as much as the privatization of what was intended to be public (but not official) art.

Christy said...

Thanks for all the excellent food for thought, everyone. Tracy, I especially like the Berlin Wall example. Glad this is ambivalent-making for others as it is for me.

Lynn Stevens said...

Peter Lemke, the curator, said he had conversations with some of the street artists that saw their own work in the gallery during the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Fest. Some hated that he had taken their art, some were delighted that he had taken their art.

So even the artists, as a collective, can't choose a side.

Christy said...

Lynn, thanks for the fascinating update! It's wonderful (and I'd think rare) that the curator would have to confront the artists whose work he appropriates. That really is the best litmus test for this kind of thing, and interesting that it also comes up a no decision.