Selling off Street Art

As Bonhams prepares to auction a batch of urban art, Tristan Manco asks whether the big money changing hands will impact upon the genre’s roots

WITH ALL the sexy ingredients of fame, money and celebrity, the art world is never long out of the headlines. Whether it’s Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull or Madonna’s collection of Frida Kahlos, collecting art is the stuff of dreams, desire and mountains of cash. According to market research, contemporary art prices have quadrupled in the past 11 years. In this climate, is the art market overheating, or is a Warhol still a cool investment?


More excitingly, who will be the Warhols of the future? Pop Art once signalled us to the Postmodern world, by celebrating popular culture. Today, it is the underground art scenes, such as graffiti and street art, which have taken on a similar role. The art establishment is catching on to the growing popularity of these alternative scenes, and following in the footsteps of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, next week sees the first auction at Bonhams of ‘urban art’.


So what is meant by the term, and why has it become seriously collectable? While it is a relatively new genre, urban art’s roots are in graffiti art and ‘street’ culture. Since its birth in New York in the late 1970s, graffiti culture has been about innovation – creating something fresh that will stand out among your peers. While the original New York graffiti train writers, such as Seen, remain successful today, it is artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring who fused graffiti styles with other influences that have became the most collectable in this genre, and feature in Bonhams’ auction.


Today, urban art builds on that successful fusion of street and pop culture, yet its practitioners have long exerted their influence on the art world. During the late 1990s, graffiti artists become more experimental in their imagery and use of media, and this revitalised era ushered in a new wave of artists such as San Francisco-based Barry McGee, the Brazilian twins Os Gemeos and British artist Banksy. These artists conquered cities with characters, narratives and subversive social commentary that spoke to people with an authentic voice. Yet the same artists have been equally successful applying the freedom they have on the streets to the way they behave in a gallery: McGee’s solo show at the Venice Biennale in 2001 blew curators’ minds when he framed pieces in informal ways, using a street vernacular to break the space with painted abandoned vehicles, and even introducing animatronics.


Banksy’s major shows have all been self-funded and directed, giving him freedom to paint on live animals and pursue other similar ideas, which would terrify institutions. The ripple effect of these art practices has already been felt across the broader culture, and, arguably, this is a greater achievement for urban artists than the secondary market auctioning of their paintings.


Acceptance of urban art by galleries and museums has given it a new cultural gravitas, yet it reminds us of the street art/gallery dichotomy: graffiti art in a gallery is no longer graffiti since it’s not on the street; rather, what’s for sale or display is street-influenced art. The attraction of graffiti is that it’s democratised: on the street it’s created for free; it’s self-motivated and experimental. All this seems to go against its commercialisation, and yet for the same reasons people are attracted to owning something that has those qualities.


With urban art fetching higher prices – a Banksy mural originally commissioned by a club in Brighton being auctioned by Bonhams with a guide price of £150 000-£200 000 – the danger is that some of its original integrity will be lost. But if the quality and adventurousness in the work remains, then this contemporary ‘pop’ art will keep gathering fans.


Bonhams’ Urban Art Auction takes place on 5 February
Tristan Manco is the author of The Street Sketchbook, published by Thames and Hudson

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