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The End, this art style is over

When ever hear someone say something like: “street art is over” I think about the end of Surrealism, if Surrealism really is over. I am sceptical of claims that a particular art movement is over, especially when artists make the claim as they have a clear financial motivation for an end limiting the supply of authentic x art. I’ve heard that graffiti art was over before, back in the 1990s after the death of Keith Haring and Michael Basquiat.

In Cold War both sides took critical shots at the Surrealists. Surrealism was dismissed as a spent force or even a curious sideline to the mainstream of art history. The historic end of Surrealism is important to a number of concerned parties, including the Surrealists, the Soviets, the Americans and a few European countries. Both the Soviets and the Americans wanted Surrealism out of the way at the end of World War II in order to further their own art histories. Maurice Nadeau claimed in his 1945 Histoire du surrealisme that Surrealism ended with WWII. And Surrealism was the obvious hole in Clement Greenberg’s attempt to rewrite a progressive modern art history for Cold War propaganda purposes.

The Surrealists themselves, along with a few countries, like Belgium and Czechoslovakia, want a continuing history of Surrealism to establish the pedigree of contemporary Surrealist artists. “Surrealism in Belgium” was at an exhibition tracing Belgium Surrealism from 1924-2000.  Also advancing the history of Surrealism is Alyce Mahon, Surrealism and the Politics of Eros 1938-1968, (Thames & Hudson, 2005). Mahon argues that the Surrealists, especially in post-WWII, used the unconscious to focus on an exploration of Eros. As a history of the little discussed post-war French surrealist movement Mahon’s book is a fascinating read and clarifies the confused time line of French Surrealism. Mahon points out that as a result of the post-colonialism advocated by Surrealism meant that many of the following generation of Surrealist artists were not from Europe and their activities have been largely ignored in US/European art history.

Further confusing the history of Surrealism are the schism and scissions of the Surrealist movement itself. These are movements as diverse as the Viennese School of Fantastic Realism and CoBrA. And the Paris Surrealists under Andre Breton expelled many of its own members, most notably Salvador Dali. The internal politics of such art movements are often of little concern to many editors and curators although the participating artists vigorously defend the differences. For example, Wolfgang Hutter and Rudolf Hausner from the Viennese School of Fantastic Realism are both included in Alfred Schmeller Surrealism (Methuen, 1956) although neither considered themselves surrealists.

It would be better to say that a particular phase of an art movement is over, “the heroic phase of x is over”. Even better to use more specific terms like “old school x is over.” And it is worth waiting for a couple of generations and getting a complete autopsy report before believing a claim that a style is over. Until then I’ll remain sceptical.

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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

3 responses to “The End, this art style is over

  • Phoenix

    Thanks for an interesting post Mark.

    Personally I feel bemused whenever anyone declares adamantly that something “is” a particular thing and/or “is not” another.
    We humans have an extraordinary propensity to attach meanings and labels to things – and then to somehow make those stick with other humans. One could say that process is one of the glues holding cultures together.
    I always tend to fall back towards a Taoist default. The Tao Te Ching offers the insight: ‘The Way that can be spoken of is not the Way’. This is usually specially applied to the concepts of God or Truth – but in its broadest sense suggests to me that we should only ever apply labels or meanings with the weakened and reversible sort of glue used in post-it notes.

    My MORE or LESS EPHEMERAL piece in Little Lonsdale St (which I am planning to soon recreate in a much larger form in a couple of Melbourne locations) was a comment on the seeming attachment to the idea that street art “is” and/or “by its very nature” ephemeral and impermanent.
    My reaction to this has been the same sort of bemusement: surely “street art” is nothing more than “art” that is somehow put on the street, or public space. It is neither inherently permanent or impermanent: it just “is”.
    The Little Lonsdale piece, installed in September 2010, was designed so that the letters spelling out its ‘LESS EPHEMERAL’ part would persist on the wall while its ‘MORE EPHEMERAL’ letters would deteriorate and disappear – demonstrating how a work on the wall could defy our preconceptions.
    Ironically, the piece has defied mine: although the open corrugated cardboard ‘more ephemeral’ letters have indeed fared much more poorly in the last 18 months’ weather, apart from the A removed in new construction work at the site, they have so far clung to the wall.

    And so, to this idea that “street art” is “over”. Not withstanding the inevitable and eternal chestnut of what constitutes “art”, people have been putting “art” in some form in the public space since the dawn of time.
    “Street art” in Melbourne – and indeed across the globe – is flourishing; I meet new practitioners every day.
    Of course, according to the arbitrary pronouncements of the art fashionistas (many of whom would be rare visitors to true street art precincts), “street art” as a “movement” will go through its inevitable cycles of public interest. But it will only be “over” when the human race itself is over.

    • Mark Holsworth

      I think that Levi-Strauss would be in agreement with you about humans using dualism (happening/over or permanent/ephemeral) as a means to attach meaning to things. Street art is meant to be a passing fad, an ephemeral act of little importance and therefore we shouldn’t surprise us when it is declared “over” – someone wants the fashion to move on. But what if it is not a fad but a fact of urban life that has achieved a critical mass? Thinking of fashion, another area of supposedly ephemeral action, I can’t think of anything, except for the toga, that is really dead – the much predicted death of the corset a century ago turned out to be a long rest followed by a revival. Architectural styles, likewise, are more or less ephemeral – the city is being rebuilt around us while some facades are being preserved.

  • Hosier Lane in the News | Black Mark

    […] street art that was back in 2008 at a panel discussion at Famous When Dead. I’ve written about the end of street art before, considering the political interests involved in declaring Surrealism […]

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