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Street Art Can Have a Message with the Medium

The act of making a statement in public space has instant cachet, just because it's being done. With so much street art, is it now more important to have meaning? I am not talking about a forced message of activism as an after-thought to give the art a hefty purpose, or an in-your-face declaration demanding a call to some social action.

Just saying something real is a big step forward for street art.

With artist Morley, the message is inviting, not cryptic, allowing you to consider his wheat-pasted musings. At first, his work looks like anti-street art by taking away urgency; yet it still carries personal tempered angst from the distress of living in Los Angeles. And it's witty.

"I think that any artist, no matter what medium or method of expression, has a responsibility to be true to themselves," Morley says, adding that the anti-street art tag isn't the right term, since it sounds like he had contempt for the way other artists express themselves. "If that truth is has a darker bent, so be it. I place honesty above disposition, so I admire and respect art that comes from frustration."

"As far as the content of my stuff being more positive than other artists, I think I just wanted to offer something that came from my voice and appeal to the things I wanted to hear more in my day to day," he says.

To understand it in the context of ongoing street art, you have to break down the mantra adopted by street artists: "Medium is the Message."

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In Woody Allen's 1977 romance of Manhattan neuroses, there is that classic scene where Allen's Alvy Singer is with his date, Diane Keaton's Annie Hall. Singer is suffering while waiting in line for a film because behind him, a Columbia media professor (Russell Horton) is blasting the theories of communication philosopher Marshall McLuhan.

Allen pulls McLuhan out from behind a lobby poster and the media philosopher confronts the professor by saying he knows nothing of his work, and why he is teaching at all is amazing.

McLuhan plays in the ongoing topic of street art. As author of "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" in 1964, he became the prophet that gave us the phrase "Medium is the Message." It introduced the idea that content is overshadowed by presentation in this media saturated world, and McLuhan has us ponder how the electric light, or lighting system / light bulb, is ignored as a communication device because it perceived as "having no content."

"It doesn't much matter what you say on the telephone," said McLuhan to further illustrate his media theory during a 1967 interview. "The telephone as a service is a huge environment," he said. "And that is the medium."

The Internet as a source of content -- and street art's invasion of public space -- are versions of the light bulb or telephone. Specifically, street art as a communication device uses public space as its medium that, as McLuhan had stated about the light source as an illumination to deeper content, "creates an environment by its mere presence."

Morley is aware of that irony. "I think that while Marshall McLuhan may not have intended this statement to refer to street art, it practically defines the purpose of the art form," he says. "My work specifically, I think would have a lot less impact if it was not on the street. It gives a context that when removed, alters the purpose and power of what I want to say -- and, obviously, who I'm trying to say it to."

Many of you see more irony coming. "Medium is the Message" is the slogan used by Shepard Fairey as a theme to his images, giving us more to ponder with his brand of propaganda. He was one artist who influenced Morley when he was an art student in New York.

The OBEY stickers and wheat-pastes, Fairey's campaign that now serves as a branding directive, had no meaning and only existed "to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker," Fairey explained in 1989. By association of using the phrase, and fulfilling McLuhan's prophecy, Fairey is often presumed to be the author of "Medium is the Message."

An added layer comes from a prompt by James Daichendt, professor of art history at Azusa Pacific University, who is also the author of "Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art" and an upcoming book about Fairey. He asked why some may feel Fairey has been labeled by street art purists as a "sell-out," while "the romantic grandfather of street art," Keith Haring, is not, despite also marketing his work in his brief life. Daichendt reasons that lack of scrutiny is one reason why Haring isn't under the same fire as Fairey. It may also be the context of the work. While Haring led a media-conscious approach to creating art and embraced mainstream success, the messages of his social activism were not upstaged by his medium.

Which brings us back to Morley. There is a message to his work. It's intimate, even encouraging. It's hopeful, yet not afraid to be sardonic-lite, even in a polite tone. It is not upstaged by the medium of urban space, where it works in tandem and where the artist feels it belongs.

Morley welcomes being in a gallery, but considers that the intent of his work may become compromised. His work is made for the streets "to become weathered," while a gallery protects it. "I think there is a big difference between creating for yourself and creating for a consumer. When you find yourself looking only to how you can monetize your art into a product, your work can't help but suffer for it," he says.

"I think with any kind of creative expression, we're trying to tell a story," Morley says. "Not just a narrative story, but the story of a feeling, of a mood, of an experience, of an epiphany."

Perhaps Morley's musings can be seen as a light bulb.


Images courtesy of Morley and iammoley.com

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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