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Street Art: High or Low Art Form?

KCET Departures "Writing on the Wall" guest editorial series continues with G. James Daichendt, Ed.D., Professor and Exhibitions Director at Azusa Pacific University. He can also be found on Facebook, "Stay Up," which is named after his upcoming book "Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art."


By G. James Daichendt

As a professor of art history and an art critic working within the institutional framework of high art, I know all too well that we honor and hold certain products of human creation in high regard. In both the university and museum system, we facilitate academic discourse for deeper understanding because of the cultural importance of these objects. Because of this attention to collecting, preserving, and educating, high art has become a part of the vocabulary of the cultural elite, wealthy, and educated. In more academic and historic terms, it's the art of aristocrats and the intelligentsia, a sub-set of society that is defined by social class and economic status.

Low art in contrast is a concept that typically refers to products of pop culture and entertainment. It's used in a derogatory fashion because of the mass appeal these products have with the general public. The accessibility means they are understandable and typically are in great supply. Folks who are swayed by these objects are deemed anti-intellectual and the term philistine is used to describe their limited and uneducated perspective.

However, the resurgence of interest from galleries and museums in graffiti and street art has made this low/high art debate much more interesting. Historically graffiti and street art have not enjoyed a high art distinction because it's accessible, uses familiar imagery, and takes place outside learned institutions. A common discussion -- even Leonardo da Vinci argued for painting being a higher form of art than other art forms.

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Certainly by bringing graffiti and street art indoors, it alters our perception and requires us to think about it more deeply, but that should not be the only indicator of qualifying it as high art and certainly not my argument.

During the 19th century this distinction was much easier to make. High art was sculpture and painting. It was a product of the academy and represented training, skill, tradition, and hard work. Low art was design used in a practical fashion. The wallpaper, chair, or china was important and certainly required skill, hard work, and design but was not elevated to the level of fine or high art.

Warhol's Brillo Boxes | By ayngelina used under a Creative Commons licenseThe story of Modernism from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century challenged what we consider a work of art. Art was no longer subject to a tight set of rules and procedures. As the movement of Modernism continued through the 20th century, it became more difficult to determine what was a work of art. Warhol's Brillo Boxes (1970), which looked exactly like the boxes bought in a store, further complicated these distinctions. One needed the gallery or prior knowledge in order to engage this box as a work of high art.

Street art as a movement confuses this divide. Existing outside the conventions of where art is made and exhibited, it instantly removes itself from the high-minded notions of educational institutions. It's not taught in college and certainly would cease to be what it is -- if it entered the university system. Although many have tried to bring graffiti and street art into the academy, it's a counterintuitive idea. The democratic act of making street art requires the streets to determine the worth of the art, not a critique inside the walls of the university.

However, the cultural connotation of low art is changing. Slowly these derogatory associations are being challenged. Much like the term geek referred to an outcast, it has now evolved in meaning to become someone with a special knowledge about a subject of study. Graffiti and street art are no longer simplistic one-liners for the uneducated but instead are being reexamined for their own history, techniques, skills, concepts, and stories. From my perspective, graffiti and street art are still low art but we as a culture place much more interest on them and value their special knowledge.

The low art label is no longer a quality judgment; it's rather a cultural perspective and does not signify good or bad. High art is also not necessarily more important than low art. In fact, with street art and graffiti there may not be any formal or productive differences between low and high. Rather the difference is an artificial divide created by people and institutions. From the low art perspective, graffiti and street art challenges the status quo art world including its institutions. This distinction then allows for insider/outsider debates.

Graffiti and street art are the most significant forms of art making in recent history, which makes this conversation meaningful again. Such a statement challenges institutional education, scholarship, and professional practices. This new set of anti-modern artists run rampant -- ignoring cultural posturing and use their art in anyway they see fit. The outsiders have become insiders through this story, challenging the characteristics of high art. While we may say that the lines are blurring between low and high -- it's perhaps more appropriate that the low art distinction has been invited inside and is running amuck in high minded institutions.


Below: Trailer for the upcoming book "Stay Up!: Los Angeles Street Art" to be released November 2012

Top: Photo by Lord Jim I Courtesy of "Stay Up"

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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