The Street Artist as Cultural Diplomat
by Alexandra Holness
It is a fine line to walk between vandal and street artist. Unlimited by the demands of the commercial art market, impervious to the imposition of censorship, and unaffected by the availability of funding, street artists appropriate the urban landscape as their canvas and confront the rare and most coveted opportunity that is complete creative freedom. In some cases, this leads to a blatant defacement of public property. However, in the right hands, this opportunity can lead to culturally penetrating results.
Anonymous French street artist, JR, claims the urban landscape to be the “largest art gallery in the world”. Utilizing the streets as his exhibition space, JR is best known for his photographic portraiture pasted across nations. One of his most profound projects, “Women are Heroes”, honors the undervalued and suffering women of developing societies. From Africa to South America, JR and his team photographed women making exaggerated and joyful expressions – “When you ask to hear her story, you think, maybe this person is dying inside. But when you ask her to make a face, then you can see the life” (JR). JR pasted the portraits of these women throughout the world in order to share their stories across borders. In a deliberate evasion of various preventative street art policies, JR’s projects achieve a visual result that is most arresting. In India, JR evaded preventative street art policy by pasting undeveloped photographs to building walls. Over time, dust from the streets attached to the stickiness of the white paper, allowing the photographs to reveal themselves. In Kenya, photographs were printed on waterproof vinyl and pasted to roofs so that the art served a functional purpose as well. In many senses, JR is a self-elected cultural diplomat – traveling the world and connecting people across cultures through art. That is, illegally.
The cloudy distinction between vandalism and street art has traditionally led governments to take a preventative stance against street art in policy-making decisions. However, the undeniable cultural value of some street art has caused many governments to rethink the complete illegalization of it. Street artists can be attractive cultural diplomats. The popularity of street art exhibitions in the top museums and at art auctions around the world attributes an additional economic value to street art that is difficult for governments to ignore. In Bristol, hometown of renowned street artist Banksy, street art policy has been adjusted in order to preserve certain beloved works. Where street art was once illegal, Bristol residents now have the power to vote whether a work of street art should be removed from public display or preserved for all to enjoy. As street art works its way into cultural policy as a legitimized art form, I wonder just how far street art ought to be legalized. Though its cultural and artistic value may prove it deserving of government support, I argue it is the illicitness of street art that gives the genre its rebellious charm and creative license that makes it so special.
Author’s Note: I am grateful to Jessica Bower for ideas contributed to this article.
More information on JR’s street art:
Great collection of the past year’s street art from around the world:
For related articles from The Muse Dialogue:
Public Art, Public Statements: An Opinion on Graffiti
Barnett Newman and the Slashed Paintings