Street Art and the Recession

In her new column, NAC Deputy Editor Julia Ramey wonders whether street art will thrive or flounder in the global downturn.

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This is the first installment of a regular column by NAC Deputy Editor Julia Ramey. She’ll be contemplating the arts as they pertain to urban areas, covering everything from dance to theater to public art to anchor institutions.

I know that a good deal of street art— and especially graffiti— is illegal, problematic for city governments and often downright hideous. But I love good street art, from the finely wrought rats of Banksy to vintage wildstyle to all those weird little stencils you see on dumpsters, streetlamps and, increasingly, boarded-up buildings. The last observation got me wondering: Will street art thrive or flounder in the global recession?

A Banksy rat on a run-down building in Liverpool.

The street art aficionados over at Vandalog see three reasons why street art, as a medium, will be all the healthier because of the recession:

The not very talented artists who have found their way into galleries are going to be put in their place. At the end of this recession, there are going to be a lot fewer crap street artists because their work is going to stop selling. Nobody wants to buy a piece any more just because the Sotheby’s catalog describes it as “stencil and spray paint on found wood.”

They go on to argue that the best street artists will do more work on the street since their gallery work is no longer bringing in cash, and that since it’s a buyer’s market, it’ll be easier for the average collector to get his hands on a Banksy or a Bast.

Stencils on a boarded-up window in Chicago.

I have a feeling that street art will ultimately thrive, for the following reasons:

-The subversive, culture-jamming tactics street artists use might be more likely these days to draw the attention of passers by, who were once satisfied with the prescriptions of order society gave them but might now (that society has failed them) be much more open to counterculture ideas.

-Even if the level of art produced remains the same, you might see more of it as cities spend less money on police patrols and cleanup.

-The best artists see a boarded-up storefront as a blank canvas. There are a lot of those these days.

The established art market is in shambles, but it’s hard to see why a downturn would affect street artists, who, let’s face it, rarely create their work in hopes of a profit. Then again, many of the better street artists do their work to draw attention to a gallery show, so if their “real” work isn’t selling, might they devote less time to street work? Street art really took off in the late 1980s, a period when cities in particular were struggling with both cash and identity, a situation we’re beginning to see again. While I don’t think you’ll see a graffiti-bombed subway car in New York any time soon, I have a feeling that this financial void we’re in is going to encourage creativity. Street artists are already directly addressing problems like falling home prices.

Anyone out there seen some recession-inspired street art? Take a look around- and New Yorkers might want to consider Jaunted’s recommendation to pocket the money you’d spend at a museum and take a walking tour of Brooklyn’s street art instead.

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