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Public Art: the Tension between Virtual and Real Space Essay


Abstract

The society is very diverse, and all types of arts cannot appeal to every person. Public art is a source of controversy; it appeals to some people, while others consider it unnecessary. It is in these confines that graffiti and street arts have become contested forms of public art. Various artists of public art have to do their works at night fearing being arrested as many urban authorities regard it illicit. Nevertheless, graffiti has been on the increase in the urban centres. This concept has also seen the number of people who sympathise with the artists rise to the extent that graffiti images at public places are nowadays regarded as necessary because they brighten the areas. It is due to these varied opinions that this paper delves into the issue of public art controversy with a key focus on the concept of graffiti and the way people’s notions about the art that was originally considered rebellious has changed. The case example of Banksy’s graffiti will be used to inform the discussion. Further, the paper provides a reflection on how the public art relates to the today’s media culture. In the relation to the selected graffiti, the key areas covered are the technique and the medium used to produce the mural.

Introduction

Public art is defined as an artwork that has been executed with the sole intention of being placed in a public area; the form of the art can be realistic or abstract. According to Visconti, the art is executed through modelling, carving, painting, stencilling, or through any other technique the artist finds suitable.1 Similarly, the medium and the nature of the work depend on the originator. The difference between public art and other forms of art is in the place where it appears and its influence on the general public. Public art is normally executed with the intention of being displayed in a public domain where it can be accessed by many people. The artists normally make use of the freedom that is related to the outdoor space in order to produce large artworks. This is a trait that is unfeasible in the case of art intended for galleries or virtual and digital spaces. Also, public art reflects the way people perceive the world in relation to environmental and social happenings. The following paper explores the concept of public art and how it relates to modern media culture; with the key focus on street art or graffiti by Banksy.

Banksy’s Graffiti: Naked Man Hanging from Window

Banksy is a renowned graffiti artist, painter and film maker based in England. His graffiti art has appeared throughout London and in other locations in major cities such as Los Angeles, Jerusalem, and Jamaica. He has been described as an example of a postmodernist artist who uses public art to express community values and question economic and political processes. ‘Naked Man Hanging from Window’ is one of the most famous graffiti’s done by Banksy. The mural was originally made on one of the walls in Park Street; Bristol England. The graffiti shows a naked man hanging from the window, while another man dressed in a suit is confused and staring in the opposite direction from the naked man. Beside the man in a suit there is a lady in undergarments.

The mural has been described as an expression of social ills in the modern society such as infidelity in relationships and the confusions that result from the vice. The first thought that comes to mind after seeing this public space mural is that this person is escaping and does not want to be seen. Metaphorically it is a pointer of how the society has been placed in a vulnerable situation by moral decay and its inability to confront it. Instead, people have turned their focus to other issues. The society is the man looking in another direction, and the social ills are the lady and the naked man. Despite the fact that graffiti and other street arts are being considered vandalism, this mural wasn’t erased due to overwhelming support from the public. The public claimed that the mural brightened the street’s environment.

Analysis of Artistic Media/Form

The medium used for the mural is an open space on the wall while the chosen technique is believed to be stencilling. This is a technique of visual arts that is used to produce designs on different surfaces. For instance, with a brush dipped in paint the artist makes light strokes to create a web of threads in order to make the final image. However, for Banksy’s mural, the applied technique is a bit complex as it produces images that look like screen printing.

Stencils are popular techniques that are used in street art and graffiti.2 However, due to the secrecy of Banksy, it becomes very difficult to pinpoint how exactly he creates his images. When making a stencil, the first step entails drawing on a light medium. This is followed by cutting out the actual stencil which is then placed in the public space such as a wall where it is to be displayed. Spray paint is then used over the stencil in order to create the final image. In the case of ‘Naked Man Hanging from Window’, the image appears complex; thus, there is a possibility that Banksy used multiple layers of the stencil and more colour than in other graffiti works. It has also been alleged that Banksy creates computer images, which are then used on the stencil medium.

It is worth noting that in the past, most of the graffiti murals were paintings, but today there is a new direction in which stencilling has become the key manifestation of the art. Many public art artists prefer stencilling over other methods because it is easy to perform and can have unlimited reproductions. Examples of other techniques include the use of spray can graphics, photographic images that have been appropriated, and other styles that keep on emerging from the underground subcultures. Therefore, graffiti artists are not limited to one technique.

The Concept of the Graffiti and How it Relates to Today’s Media Culture

In order to understand how the graffiti relates to the media culture, it is important to point out that the main ideology about public art is to express the values of the society, question political and social ills, and to improve the appearance of public space environment. In the contemporary society, public art has really changed the landscape of art. Modern public art artists such as Banksy use different materials, concepts, methods and subjects that tend to defy the old boundaries. For example, contemporary art lacks the principle of uniformity or specific ideology as it was experienced in past art movements. Instead, the artists use their work to reflect various beliefs, changing values and the cultural landscape. This makes it ubiquitous. The concept relates to the modern media culture that has also become ubiquitous and pervasive. According to recent studies, it has been established that it influences the various categories of our everyday life and shapes the way people perceive things.

Presently, the media has exemplified and accelerated new trends in the society and has led to the trend of ‘self.’3 For example, self-governance and self-reliance are tenets of the modern day social media and they denote a degree of defiance from the societal order. The hallmark of the modern media culture is the rebelliousness against authorities, young people are no longer interested in societal norms and order. Similarly, the concept of art by Banksy and other street artists relates to this perception of rebelliousness. In fact, McAuliffe pointed out that there is congruence in the ideals of the modern media culture and street art.4 The users turn regulated areas to free spaces where they can express their ideas. Through constant defiance of authorities, the cultures are normalized. However, there is a common view that the media culture and the street art present a platform for expression for people who otherwise could have been disfranchised by the society that is controlled by many norms and orderliness.

Concerning graffiti and the example of Banksy’s work, it is a phenomenon that shows how much the public art relates to today’s media culture characterized by the emergence of self-communication through unsolicited art. According to Visconti, this is a shift from the past industrial societies that were characterized by common survival values to the culture where self-expression values are prioritized.5 For example, graffiti and street art have become powerful movements in which the artists use public spaces such as walls to reach to the people. Just as in the modern media cultures where social and political issues are raised through social sites that are not regulated, public art artists use the regulated spaces to pass their messages without being authorised. The artists view these spaces as areas that are untapped for creative art work. It is important to note that installing graffiti has mainly been considered as illicit activity and categorized as vandalism. Schacter stated, “Street-art (or if you prefer, graffiti), in its various forms and manifold designs, is one of the most ubiquitous sources of visual culture in the contemporary urban metropolis.”6

Graffiti has been described as a pure and unmediated expression of public art; also, in most cases it has been considered by urban authorities as destruction and defacement.7 Since its inception in the 18th century and the unprecedented spread in the 1960s, it has attracted different views unlike other forms of art that are confined into galleries. Graffiti modifies the environment and gives artists a chance to reach the broader audience.8 This seems to have become a popular opinion that has allowed the public art to prevail; the case example relates to Banksy’s graffiti ‘The Naked Man Hanging from Window’ which the town authorities failed to erase due to the public’s popular vote.

The appeal to the masses that characterise the graffiti relates to the case of today’s media culture. It has led to the attitudinal change, i.e., from perceiving it as an illicit activity to the acceptance that it is a part of public culture that cannot be terminated. This is normally attributed to the sympathy and love that the street artists have received. As such, public art and artists have allies in the form of the community members who no longer view graffiti and other street artists as being rebellious, but ‘beloved’ people who pass messages to a wider public by using spaces that are unutilized.

There have been arguments that the graffiti artists create a real utopia in the social spaces; however, Irvine pointed out that public art is used as a means to represent personal and societal views and as an expression of opposition and contestation.9 In the modern society which is greatly urbanized, the media culture has spread to every part of the world. Similarly, expanded spaces have been converted to talking points by public art artists.10 It is through this understanding that instead of using speech, graffiti artists have made the public space ‘savage’, and hence, by disregarding rigid rules of institutions, messages can be inscribed on the walls.

The use of graffiti has been spreading at increased rate due to the current technological uptake. This is similar to the contemporary media culture that is driven by technological uptake, mass appeal, and consumerism. Graffiti and other forms of public art are also driven by the wave of appeal to many people and desire to pass a message that reflects the values of the society. It is important to note that the modern graffiti artists do not focus on the back street, their artworks are found in main streets. This has been interpreted as creating a gesture to the public stating: ‘we are here with this message now’, – a slogan associated with today’s media culture.

Conclusion

From this discussion, it is evident that there is a certain perception that has made public art a transitory phenomenon. It has shifted from conventional art that was confined to the museums and galleries. Today, public art has been described as visual ephemera used to create iconic language; hence, the claim that it is unsolicited. Despite being considered a public transgression, graffiti as a form of public art adds to the visual culture of many cities across the globe. It has been integrated into the lives of people to the extent that they defend it as a part of street environment. From ‘Naked Man Hanging from Window’ by Banksy, it can be deduced that public art such as the graffiti has become an alternative tool of mass communication and carries different types of messages that include social, political, religious, and economic information. It is important to note that graffiti has been evolving over time. It started as an anarchic underground movement that appropriated public visual surfaces, but today it has transitioned into an important part of the visual space in many urban centres. This explains why Banksy’s public art works are found in many major cities.

References

Deuze, M., ‘Media life’, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 33, no. 2, 2011, pp. 137-148.

Irvine, M., ‘The work on the street: Street art and visual culture’, Visual Culture, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. 235-278.

McAuliffe, C., ‘Graffiti or street art? Negotiating the moral geographies of the creative city’, Journal of Urban Affairs vol. 34, no. 2, 2012, pp. 189-206.

Michalowska, M., ‘Digital utopias and real cities-computer-generated images in re- design of public space’, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-7.

Riggle, N., ‘Street art: The transfiguration of the commonplaces’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 68, no. 3, 2010, pp. 243-257.

Schacter, R., ‘An Ethnography of Iconoclash: An Investigation into the Production, Consumption and Destruction of Street-art in London’, Journal of Material Culture, vol. 3, no. 1, 2008, pp.35- 61.

Visconti, L., ‘Street art, sweet art? Reclaiming the “public” in public place’, Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 37, no. 3, 2010, pp. 511-529.

Footnotes

  1. L. Visconti, ‘Street art, sweet art? Reclaiming the “public” in public place’, Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 37, no. 3, 2010, p. 513.
  2. C. McAuliffe, ‘Graffiti or street art? Negotiating the moral geographies of the creative city’, Journal of Urban Affairs vol. 34, no. 2, 2012, p. 201.
  3. M. Deuze, ‘Media life’, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 33, no. 2, 2011, p. 141.
  4. C. McAuliffe, ‘Graffiti or street art? Negotiating the moral geographies of the creative city’, Journal of Urban Affairs vol. 34, no. 2, 2012, p. 203.
  5. L. Visconti, ‘Street art, sweet art? Reclaiming the “public” in public place’, Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 37, no. 3, 2010, p. 515
  6. R. Schacter, ‘An Ethnography of Iconoclash: An Investigation into the Production, Consumption and Destruction of Street-art in London’, Journal of Material Culture, vol. 3, no. 1, 2008, p.35.
  7. N. Riggle, ‘Street art: The transfiguration of the commonplaces’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 68, no. 3, 2010, p. 253.
  8. M. Michalowska, ‘Digital utopias and real cities-computer-generated images in re-design of public space’, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015, p. 2.
  9. M. Irvine, ‘The work on the street: Street art and visual culture’, Visual Culture, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, p. 237.
  10. M. Deuze, ‘Media life’, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 33, no. 2, 2011, p. 141.
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