Every time street art enters the gallery the question is raised about the definition of street art. The Melbourne galleries most associated with street art doesn’t want to use the term “Street Art” because it is a contradictory term for art in a gallery, But it is the term that we are stuck with. Maybe some future art historian will find a better name for the art movement.
When I want to use a word like ‘movement’ I refer to the “Afterword” in Stewart Home The Assault on Culture (Aporia Press & Unpopular Books, London, 1988) “’Movement’ has military connotations and implies a mass of adherent. For something to merit the title ‘movement’ it would seem to require several thousand participants at the very least.” (p.106) Art movements are very rare; Home lists the Sixties Underground (taken as a whole), Punk and Mail Art as the only post war art movements. The rest, Situationalists, CoBrA Fluxus, etc. are just groups.
Like other movements, street art is, in part, a reaction to previous art movements with a radical change in artistic paradigms. Instead of art dependent on gallery space to make it art, street art is independent of the gallery setting. Walking through W.E. Kennick’s imaginary warehouse of all the objects in the world and trying to pick out the art you may be confused by Duchamp’s readymades but not by the street art. (Kennick, Journal of Philosophy, v.81) Street art is designed to appear as art without the museum, you would know that it is art anywhere.
If you know that street art is art anywhere why is there any doubt about it still being street art in an art gallery. How can one identical image, for example a stencil, be street art when sprayed in the street and not when shown in a gallery? Unless “street art” is merely a geographic description that would also include any art found on the street, (e.g. public sculpture etc.) Although street art is a rejection of the influence of the anesthetizing environment of the contemporary art gallery that dominated so much of late modernism and contemporary art it does not follow that street art ceases to be street art in an art gallery.
Perhaps the question would be better put is it appropriate to show street art in art galleries? But this does not make sense as it would make art galleries only appropriate for a very limited amount of art. For most of human history art was not made for art galleries – Leonardo da Vinci never thought that his paintings would hang in an art gallery because the idea of art galleries had not been invented. Very little art is therefore appropriate for an art gallery, however, currently a lot of art does end up being exhibited in art galleries from sacred art intended for churches and temples to street art intended for the street. However, the contemporary art gallery is the site for displaying and selling art and design as diverse as Amish quilts to street art.
Street art has become a term for a new graphic arts movement that started in the early 1980s and continuing into the 21st century. It is a calligraphic and figurative art movement that developed on the street. Instead of art that requires no talent, no technique, no skill (aside from theory, publicity and management skills), street art emphasizes illustrative drawing skills and other talents. Instead of art that is dependent on art theory, that was becoming, in Arthur Danto’s terms, philosophy; street art is independent of current art theory (this is not to say that street art is theory free). Street art may be independent of art galleries but that doesn’t mean that they are antithetical.