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What’s in the name – street art?

On the street or hanging framed on a wall I still call it “street art”.

Back in 2009 I wrote about Street Art & Galleries and an interesting debate ensured, that I’ve since revisited several times in conversations, comments on this blog and at Melbourne Stencil Festival meetings. I know that some artists distinguish between their art in galleries and art on the street and even use different names depending on if it is on the street or in a gallery (this is not uncommon in the past, some artists used different names if they were doing Surrealist or non-Surrealist art, and Van Doesberg used a different names when doing Dada art).

Various artists, McCullach Lane

In the past discussions I think that I was getting too caught up in a type and token distinction about art in the street and in the gallery. Rather than addressing the need to have a name for this movement that I refer to as street art, not just when it appears in the street but when it is elsewhere, in art galleries and people’s homes. To further complicate type and token discussion consider that most “street art” exists as digital photos on a computer screen. (I love to confute discussions, to add further complexities to confuse anyone who thinks that it is a simple matter.)

The discussion about where a piece of art is located aside, back to what to what to call the art movement. A phrase like “artists with a street based practice” could be used but I would only recommend using in technical academic or bureaucratic texts. Try saying “artists with a street based practice” a hundred times to random people on the street and see what a wanker you sound like.

First lets examine how art movements are named. Art movements get their names in a variety of ways; newspapers name some (Impressionists), some name themselves (Dada) and others are named after they are over by art historians (Baroque, Classical). Street art is too large a movement for all the participants to agree on a single name – for one, they don’t all speak the same language. Nor can street art police a definition of street as Breton tried to police the use of “surrealism”. “Street art” is a name that it is common use – try entering it in Google, there is little ambiguity, apart from “street art wheels” for custom cars.

The philosophical complexity of what is a name is a lifetime’s study and so would how classifications are made. There is no necessary connection between a signifier (the name) and the signified (the object) but it is necessary to have a name in order to talk about a subject without confusion. The name needs to have a broad appeal – try selling “rape seed oil” even though it is the same as “canola oil”. There is a need to name art movements (for exhibitions, festivals, webpages and books) in an appealing way rather than an absolutely accurate way and to use a name that is commonly understood.

So I don’t think about ‘street art’ too literally or narrowly, names are in part poetry. The metaphorical significance of ‘the street’ is akin to the real world. ‘Street art’ is, for the finicky pedant, essentially a contraction of the phrase “artists with a street based art practice.”

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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