In today’s storm in a fatcap art news – Melbourne street artist CDH applied for a council art grant to create a public work. When it was approved for the sum of $3,300, instead of completing the proposal he adorned the back of the cheque with signifiers drawn from (largely) local graffiti/art culture (I can see Rone, Civil, Puzle, Dick Nose, Merda, Keith Haring, Lewis Marnell, Prism, Junky, Jors, Phibs, Bonez, Stan, Bode, Urban Cake Lady, and the infamous CTCV) and then tore it into three pieces in a symbolic act of defiance.
I say symbolic, because you know, a cheque isn’t actually money. So despite Mayor Robert Doyle being quoted in The Age as calling him a “grandstanding idiot” and imploring him to “return the cheque and we will use the money to encourage young and emerging street artists or to commence a new work in Hosier Lane, such as Adnate’s recent work” – it’s a fairly safe gesture. (Side note: but if there was ever a sign that ‘street art’ is passé, it’s the Mayor name dropping an artist.)
Anyway, because simply carrying out the action wouldn’t be enough – CDH took the liberty of publishing several thousand words discussing the reasoning behind his actions – which you can read over at ArtsHub. They essentially boil down to the following, as best I can tell.
1. The intersection of art and commerce is problematic, and council arts grants stifle true creative practice.
2. The demarcation of street art and graffiti is restrictive, and distracts from discussion about appropriate use of city space.
He also asserts that while his practice is lumped in with the street art camp, he wants “to claim the title graffiti artist”, and that right there is where I’ve got a problem. The idea that arts grants provided via the council will invariably dampen creative vision seems kind of straightforward to me, obviously monetary involvement by any third party comes with a vested interest on behalf of the benefactor. If the council of the city of Melbourne is funding public art, then they’re accountable to the city for that artwork. Commerce affects art, that’s unavoidable. But CDH’s proposal that the council should be more accommodating for applications from street/graffiti artists is laughable, and it demonstrates exactly what’s wrong with the current state of our city.
Sculpture is not painting, cinema is not theatre, music is not dancing, and street art is not graffiti. None of these modes are intrinsically more or less worthwhile than any other practice. All can be used as vehicles for creative expression, and each can be used to create art that’s good and art that’s terrible. Despite CDH’s post-structuralism posturing, his practice is not graffiti. On a personal level, it’s also not very good – it’s prescriptive in its obsession to adhering to academic concepts to an extent that robs his work of any compelling dialogue. They read like visual essays from an earnest 19 year old critiquing capitalism, footnooted with Wikipedia academia and too much time on Reddit. BUT that’s just my opinion, and my issue isn’t with the quality of the work – it’s in claiming the name of a culture that CDH doesn’t identify with. You know, kind of like how the city co-opts the work of street artists in order to sell Melbourne’s ‘unique laneway culture.’
Street art and graffiti are similar in as much as they share urban spaces, and that sometimes they share common materials (spraypaint and markers), and that’s where the comparison ends. Street art is an inclusive culture, initially created illegally and increasingly created with permission, in public spaces that encourages active dialogue with an audience. As a result the content and visual language of street art tends to be universally recognisable, anthropomorphic animals, portraits, optical puns, and the like. Graffiti culture is exclusive – it’s anti-authoritarian, aggressive, and insular. Both are painted for a litany of different reasons, for completely different motives. The point that I’m trying to get at here is there’s no point in arguing for the council to reform their approach to graffiti, BECAUSE GRAFFITI WRITERS DON’T GIVE A FUCK. At all. It’s that simple. CDH referencing Bonez and Stan in his work is the perfect articulation of that binary, while he spent a year working through the process of grant applications Stan and Bonez CRUSHED the city without any sanctioned permission or external funding. Which action speaks more authentically about the ownership of public space, the 2,500-word essay on Artshub or these rollers on Flinders street? I know where I stand.
Dr Lachlan MacDowall recently made some interesting points regarding graffiti culture and it’s positioning as a modernist practice. Graffiti writers are obsessed with the notion of individual progression, stylistically and culturally. Copying is something that’s not tolerated, whereas in post-modern street art positioning what’s construed as biting is instead explained as homage or reference. This is part of a much wider dialogue surrounding two differing cultures that exist in the same space, but it’s indicative of the flaw (and intrinsic arrogance) in CDH’s statements. As much as he wants to claim the title of “graffiti artist” to “align [his] art practice with those left behind,” the culture that he’s claiming and its participants have no desire or need to be claimed. Sure, the negotiation of public space is an issue that’s going to consistently challenge Melbourne city – but earnest street art driven debates are not the way to solve them. You can win a debate, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not boring.