Wednesday, 26 August 2009

But is it Art?

In the town where I grew up there was a shop called ‘But is it Art’ that sold objects and trinkets that were loosely related to the subject of art. It was one of the better shops in town, a place you always looked first when birthdays and Christmas came around, but I don’t think anybody was ever able to answer the question with a positive or a negative.

The same question popped into my mind recently when I decided to visit the ‘Né Dans La Rue’ (Born in the Street) exhibition at the Fondation Cartier. The idea of the show is to tell the history of graffiti and street art from its beginnings in New York up until today, with several new specially commissioned pieces displayed both inside and outside the building. The exhibition is an incredibly rich one, and a visitor could spend hours looking through the documents and watching the fascinating films that accompany the show, but I’m not sure that they would be able to answer the question afterwards either.

Nevertheless, if you are planning a trip to Paris before the end of the year (the show ends on November the 29th) this is one exhibition you really should try to catch. The photos that I have included here are all from the perimeter of the building as photography inside the show is strictly forbidden. However, thinking back now, it is not the artwork inside the show that sticks in my mind, but the socio-historic elements, and these would be very difficult to catch in coloured pixels anyway.

I have never been to New York and remember little of the 1970s, but I was an impressionable teenager when the shockwaves of this movement arrived in the suburbs and small towns of England in the 1980s. I was fascinated therefore to see the collection of tag sketchbooks which were similar to those friends of mine kept, and hear the music again that was so tightly linked to this world. I never got involved, feeling that I would simply be mimicking somebody else’s culture, and I still feel today that this is creation that you have to live.

Was it the intention of the curators to organise the exhibition in this way? Walking around, looking at the hand-sketched cards advertising rap events and films showing people spraying tags at these same shows, it is impossible not to see this as anything other than a complete integrated movement. As a juxtaposition, films also show the New York of the early 70s, a bankrupt city where immigrant groups had been left to fend for themselves in the tough city centre, and a place the rich only ever visited when working.

Tagging was therefore a way to show people in power that there were others who existed and who also had a voice. This becomes even clearer in the film ‘Pixo’ which centres on gangs in Sao Paolo in Brazil today. They have developed a new form of tagging known as Pixaçao which is almost a language in itself. One illiterate youth in the film is shown struggling with printed text on a poster, but then quickly translating all the pixaçao messages written on surrounding walls.

These are all powerful messages. A notebook from one tagger lists how and where other taggers had been killed in action (crushed by trains or shot mostly!), whilst a full subway maintenance worker outfit in a glass container shows how the taggers disguised themselves in order to reach their train canvases. Where was the art though? It was one of the most interesting sociological exhibitions I had visited in a long time, but when I entered the room where the contemporary ‘inspired by graffiti’ creations stood, I couldn’t help but feel that they seemed weak and diluted against the vibrancy of the originals.


But is it art?’ I asked myself again before taking the staircase up to the shop. I had come full circle, finding myself again in a place where objects have price tags. I bought a t-shirt, a cute one for a child which was covered in the tags of some of the featured artists. A tag, a label, Cartier. I don’t know if it is art, but what shows acceptance more than capitalist consumption?

Né dans la Rue
Fondation Cartier pour l'art Contemporain
261 Boulevard Raspail, 75014
Until November 29th

If you are interested in urban creation, you can also download my free Street Art walk.

10 comments:

Starman said...

‘But is it art?’ I suppose the answer would be in one's interpretation of the word. If one interprets "art" to be the graphic representation of an idea, a theme or a social comment, then I think it must be so.

ArtSparker said...

Somewhere between art and how wolves mark their territory.

Totalfeckineejit said...

This is something I've been thinking about for a while.Clearly it is different in every country.Here in Ireland I have concluded.Art? No.Artistic? Sometimes.

Gina V said...

I think if it is truly from the irrepressible heart, if it is a genuine expression of one's creative urges, then yes...
if it is social propaganda, lurid ego-marking, economic manipulation, or plain old vanity projects, then not so much...

Owen said...

Thanks for all the scouting and scouring you do around Paris to dig these things up for us who live extra-muros. This is another I'd certainly enjoy seeing, hopefully will have time before the end of November to get to the Fondation Cartier. Just did a whole series of photos of graffiti out in Brittany this past week. If there is already some doubt as to whether graffiti is "art" or not, then can photographs of graffiti be considered art ? Hmm... well, at least the photos may have some documentary value if nothing else. I enjoy the creativity behind some graffiti, when it seems inspired, inhabited by some sort of intelligent mind, but vast quantities of graffiti just seem plain boorish and insipid and totally lacking imagination. But I suppose that is purely the result of a society which has produced too many poorly educated, boorish, insipid, unimaginative individuals... perhaps a bit harsh an observation, but unfortunately some element of truth there...

SP said...

Oh no! Sounds really good - I spent last week in Paris and on Sunday it was a toss up between this show and the other part of the Henri Cartier Bresson show at MEP and the Museum of Modern Art. I went with Henri as I'd been to Cartier just a few months ago for the William Eggleston show but sounds like I made the wrong choice! Love your blog posts though, thanks for the extra info.

Lenox Ave said...

Sounds like an interesting exhibit. I grew up in NYC during the 80's. I remember trains covered in grafitti, to the point of not being able to see outside the windows.

It was a way for poor, disenfranchised black and latino kids to announce that we were alive and had worth and value just like anyone else. The "Tag" was your calling card and a way to be recognized.

I don't think any of us thought about it being art growing up. It was merely a form of self expression for those who had no such outlets otherwise. It could be annoying and a public nuisance. It could also be beautiful and inspired.

It seems that the question of whether it is art or not is being asked by those who have no connection to it anyway.

Anonymous said...

My girlfriend and I took the Street Art walk on Thursday. It was my first time in Paris and my ladies first time visiting this part of Paris. It was great and far enough off the beaten trail that we could just blend into the city. Found some great treasures that just seemed to pop out of the pavement. We followed it up with a trip to the Foundation Cartier, but I was hoping for more history of French graffiti and less on the history leading back to NYC. Nevertheless, thank you for all your research and an excellent guide.

Elizabeth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth said...

I just happened upon your blog today, and am enjoying catching up in the archives. I have been meaning to write about street art as well. Your walking tour inspired me, so I hope you don't mind that I linked to both it and your blog at http://parisperspective.blogspot.com/2009/09/graffiti-and-space-invaders.html. I hope to be able to do your walking tour soon!

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