In the beginning there was the street
In the 1950s, a new era was born and artists seized the street as a workshop. United around the idea of « pœtic recycling of urban reality » , theorised by Pierre Restany, they incorporated elements of the urban and industrial environment into their work. Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Villeglé took down and tore up posters from the street while Arman accumulated rubbish which he then cast in Plexiglas.
The 1960s saw the birth of urban art in the broadest sense of the term. In the USA, the accessibility of the spray can transformed the cities of New York and Philadelphia into a playing field where Taki 183 and Tracy 168 affirmed their existence by writing their pseudonyms - the signature demonstrating the egocentricity of the artists.
In France, the events of May 1968 were the catalyst for transgressive and provocative expression. The messages were political, cultural and social, with a certain pœtry in evidence along with antiestablishment overtones. A number of French artists embraced urban art to a greater or lesser extent as a means of taking hold of reality : Daniel Buren used the street as a means of pursuing his political agenda, creating wild displays within the city; Ernest Pignon-Ernest, a French urban art pioneer, produced silk-screen prints questioning the place of the individual in society, which he scattered about the city at inopportune moments.
From the streets to the galleries
As the USA experienced economic and social upheaval and the effects of the Vietnam War, Hip Hop culture was born and its popularity soared during the Reagan era. After the low point characterising the 1970s, New York emerged as a hub of urban and creative energy with the arrival of graffiti artists such as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and even Futura 2000.
Embodying this Hip Hop culture, Keith Haring, white chalk in hand, travelled the New York Subway, planting his characters in unoccupied advertising space. More than 5,000 unsigned temporary pieces and subway drawings brought him popularity and recognition. With a simple, colourful style, the artist’s work depicts his struggle against societal issues : religion, mass consumption and the environmental damage caused by human activity. Jean-Michel Basquiat took over the Harlem and Soho areas of the city under the pseudonym, Samo© (Same Old Shit), sharing his aphorisms in the public arena from the late 1970s.
From the start of the 1980s, galleries and major contemporary art events progressively embraced the underground scene and graffiti was recognised as an aesthetic discipline. While both were invited to participate in the documenta de Kassel in 1982, Keith Haring achieved success in the same year during his first personal exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi gallery. The following year, Basquiat became both the youngest and the first black artist to be exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art biennial in New York. Two artists who, by taking art to the wall, contributed to making street art a genre in its own right.
From the street to the auction house
The Street Art exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2008 was the first urban art exhibition to cross the threshold of an internationally recognised museum. In asking six artists (including Blu, Faile and Sixeart) to cover one of its walls with their work, the London museum demonstrated the popularity of street art among museums. This popularity was corroborated by the 80,000 spectators that hurried to attend the exhibition TAG au Grand Palais in Paris in 2009.
Street art in the sights of gallery owners and museums as well as auction houses. While street art has not escaped the art market, the collaboration between the first two on the list has intensified over the years. Auction houses have thus become essential players and collectors increasingly attracted. Christie’s, Sotheby’s, ArtCurial, Bonhams and Drouot all sell street art, alone or incorporated within contemporary art sales. Artcurial annual street art sales illustrate the phenomenon : 566,992 euros in 2011, 1,008,206 euros in 2012 and 1,297,151 euros in 2013. This urban art development has transformed the public sales sector into a marketing medium.
From the street to the company
Known for his photos in XXL format, JR is now enjoying international popularity, both with an admiring public and famous museums. Between the 2007 Venice Biennial and the MOCA, the artist « broke down walls » at the Perrotin gallery which offered him his first personal exhibition at the end of 2011.
Winner of the 2011 TED Prize, JR launched Inside-Out Project; a large-scale, effective viral marketing operation. With his XXL photo booth, the artist has attracted people in their thousands in places as diverse as New York, Paris, Tokyo and Mexico, allowing him to put his JR signature on more than 155,000 portraits which have already been sent to his New York studio. JR is also a communicator. The sheer size of his interventions and the carefully selected places mean he enjoys significant media coverage.
The Banksy era
British artist Banksy has had such an influence on the mainstreaming of street art that he has become something of a legend. Neither fully integrated nor outside the market, Banksy is unclassifiable and unidentifiable. Whether it’s the codes governing our society or the art market in question, he has been able to establish and impose his own rules in a game that he plays to perfection. Refusing gallery support, he has established the Pest Control Office, an authentication service and the only structure authorised to sell his work.
Little known among the general public just a few years ago, his popularity and approval both soared after 2006 when the piece « Tank, embracing Couple » was sold for ten times its estimated value. In 2007, Sotheby’s made the record books with the sale of Keep it Spotless. Based on a Damien Hirst painting, the piece found a buyer for $1.87 million. During the first half of 2008, shortly prior to the subprime crisis, 21 Banksy pieces were sold at auction for amounts in excess of $100,000. Despite his falling popularity in the immediate aftermath of the economic crisis, the 2010 release of his film « Exit Through the Gift Shop » revived his popularity to make him the current most expensive street artist. According to a report published on ArtmarketMonitor, revenue generated from Banksy pieces totals $39.56 million.
Banksy has an understated communication style. From his intrusion in the museums of New York (the MoMA, Met, Brooklyn Museum and American Museum of Natural History) to showcasing his own work in his wild exhibition Better out Than In in the streets of New York, the Banksy figure is as subversive as he is untimely.
A new equation, a new urban landscape
From being marginalised by the art world by refusing to adapt, street art is sliding towards institutionalisation and gentrification. The romantic ideal of street as having developed outside the speculative fields of the art market is far from the truth. Bolstered by globalisation and new technology, street art has followed the contemporary art path and adopted the same strategies. On the one hand, the Internet has emerged as a powerful means of visibility; photographing and sharing representative images on social networks has given new meaning to time. On the other hand, by affixing frames or mounts to graffiti and stencils, art market players are leading street art in the direction it has resisted : towards standardisation.
While the effervescence of the street art market is indicative of a certain interest, it has not yet been completely figured out and a range of questions remain on both the moral and legal spectrum. Morality is questioned when Banksy and Invader pieces are taken from the public arena to later reappear in auction catalogues. This is perfectly legal but it dœs question the link between the pieces and their environment, which forms the very foundations of street art.
Once labelled graffiti bombing, the notion of street art has been further complicated with the emergence of visual artists among its ranks. One example of this is Mark Jenkins who has integrated out-of-place life-size mannequins into reality in a bid to call out to urban daily life.
Original street art is dead. From its ashes has risen contemporary urban art, which forms a new urban world and a transformed society.
A big thank you to Stéphane Chatry for his contribution and invaluable information.