Interview with Cedar Lewisohn
Curator at the Tate Modern for the Street Art Exhibition. July 2008.
His Book can be ordered from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Street-Art-Revolution-Cedar-Lewisohn/dp/1854377671
Can you tell us about the history of Street Art? How it has become so popular?
Well, this is a massive subject I don’t know how much time you have to spare, within an hour perhaps and I could enlighten you. But briefly I would say, that it is very difficult to categorise. It depends a lot on how you begin to categorize. If you want to specifically talk about street art or specifically about graffiti. Because I strongly believe they are two distinct subjects with street art being a sub genre of graffiti. The argument as to where the start of graffiti is relates strongly to and is an argument about when people first started writing. So that’s a whole kind of anthropological discussion.
If you are talking specifically about the history of Street Art let’s say there were important developments in 1970s Europe there was lots of activity then and
about the same time in New York, a lot of stuff developed from the punk movement. For Example the posters and adverts the punks were making in the street that were not really adverts and not really art and they were just weird statements.
Artists like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger are perfect examples of the work that came out of that movement. Those guys also relate to punk and have strong connections with New York.
Then there is a connection with the kind of movements that happened in France. The situationalists were also doing activities and art out on the street basically without permission. The situationalists were making art on the streets since 1968 and before so all of these activities are kind of antecedents to what we describe as Street Art today.
Was Jenny Holzer an artist before she went out to be Street Artist?
Jenny Holzer, no, she was not, as far as I understand and I have interviewed her and what she said to me is, that she was studying at the Whitney Museum in New York in the early 60s. She actually wanted to be a politician but she was unsure about the idea of it, so she enrolled for the Independent Study Program a very well known course at the Whitney. She had these political ideas and she was writing these statements in books and did not know what to do with them so she thought it would be a good idea to just put them up out in the streets.
She did not consider herself an artist at first. She considered herself more as a politician, madwoman and artist. She was kind of all three, and did not think that what she was doing as being art for a long time. She was just putting these things up.
How does the development of street art compare with other art movements in history?
It compares very well. Take for example surrealism; there are lots of comparisons you can make with the development of surrealism. With street art directly the one important thing to remember is that the Surrealists and
before that the Dadaists had a lot of affinity with the kind of art we now call street art or graffiti. They were very interested in its ephemeral gestures and properties. Art which disappeared, art that washed away, all these temporary gestures they were very keen on. Brassai is perhaps the most famous example of someone who documented this kind of work. But also Picasso has given quotes saying, how much he liked graffiti and primitive art forms.
Picasso used to like this kind of primitive art form and in a way it comes close to and has an affinity with what is termed outsider art. Outsider art has always had a big influence on mainstream art and Street art is a kind of Outsider art, so there is always a big cross over.
How do you differentiate between Street Art and Graffiti?
Graffiti is essentially a text-based gesture and has text at its core. Graffiti writers write and the activity is driven by tagging. Street art in my opinion has moved away from that core and has evolved from tagging.
Is this to do with having images in the art form?
In Graffiti you do have images but text is still at the core.
Where does propaganda fit in? For example I was in the Basque Country and saw these beautiful pictures supposedly they were illegal. Or for example do you remember the Lord Kitchener Poster that has become an Artistic Icon?
You mean illegal murals; I suppose an other example would be those one sees in Northern Ireland.
They fit roughly but there again they are a separate subject, I class them as political murals basically when something is more about politics it is really a political thing and not really art. The politics is more important than the art.
So when you talk about street art do you talk about something that has an aesthetic value?
No not only. Graffiti writing has a lot of aesthetic value as well.
But graffiti is an internal message for an internal audience. Graffiti writers write for other graffiti artist where as street art is done so that anyone who sees it can understand it.
What are the various kind of motives specifically connected to street art making?
Motives for artists are that they just want to communicate with the audience. They are artist who don’t want to go through all the rigmarole of going through a gallery or getting permission. They want to speak to the public very immediately and by pass the whole system and put the work up themselves without having to seek permission. Another difference between Graffiti writers and Street Artists is that a lot of street artists come from an art school background and so when they come out they don’t necessarily wait around for a gallery they just want to put their stuff out there.
What was the criteria for selecting the artists for this exhibition? What were you looking for?
I think I really I wanted to show the diversity of the work that is happening around the world.
How was your experience working with the artists for this exhibition? Did it differ from working with other artists?
Yeah it was quite different. In one sense the whole nature of the project was different.
They were working outside, they were working in the rain and with the elements, but also the difference was they had worked in museums and biennales before so they were all super professionals.
Why put on Street Art now? Street Art was new and fresh about 20 years ago what has it changed since then?
I don’t think anything has changed for me it was more a question of why not now also I was not working in a museum 20 years ago, I was in the school playground. May be it is a generational shift. 20 years ago when graffiti was at its most prevalent museums were not really ready for it. Now we have a new generation, which has grown up with graffiti and admired it when they were young. Now they may work in positions in power and they work with that which influenced them then. This has happened a lot within advertising agencies and within museums and galleries. But the other important thing to say is that it is important for the Tate to put on this kind of show. There is so much work in the museum that references graffiti but at the same time it is very rare that graffiti actually makes it into the museum and is acknowledges by the museum and so that in my opinion has been really important. So why not now? For me it’s, the sooner the better.
What does it mean for Street Art to be accepted and showcased by an establishment like Tate Modern?
I think its good and important and hopefully it brings Street art to a whole new audience that probably would not have seen it otherwise maybe it changes peoples minds from thinking that street art is about vandalism, and that it is about thoughtless kids doing some crazy adolescent gestures.
When they see the diversity of this work and consider the conceptual rigour of the works, I hope that they can appreciate what is behind the work and realise that there is a lot more going on here.
How do you think it affects the work of street artists?
What’s so great about this exhibition at the Tate is that we have such a wide audience, it ranges from pensioners to very young and everyone in between. A lot of these people love the work and get a lot out of the work and to me this is underground work with a mass appeal.
What does it mean for Street Art to be accepted and showcased by an establishment like Tate Modern?
With this exhibition we also want to speak to the purist as well. I think what is important is that all of these artists also have studio careers. They don’t only make work in the street they also make work in their studio’s and have their own studio practise and have that side to their characters which allows them to make work for museums and galleries as well. So it’s perfectly natural and part of their practise that they would make work for museums and galleries.
Is it still street art, if we can view it in a gallery context?
Obviously what is the great thing here at the Tate is that we kept the work on the outside in order to keep that edge and this kind of authenticity, but we are not trying to claim it as authentic illegal street art. But also what is good about it that we were able to ask the artists to do something they could not do illegally.
Could you foresee a time when Street Art will no longer be illegal?
Everywhere in the world there is a different culture, in Brazil for example it was legal to make street art and graffiti. It just depends where you go in the world what kind of culture. Everywhere there is a different perception of street art.
What is your vision of the future of Street Art?
I don’t know, more work, more exiting work hopefully, there are so many young artists and there is so much more street art around.
If it stays in fashion or goes out of fashion which could happen I think there will always be people making more work and it will still continue to be great and exiting.
Why were you drawn to and are you specifically interested in Street Art?
I was researching toward doing the book on Street Art for about 2 years. A big part of my job here at the Tate is travelling around London and around the world going to different exhibitions and galleries looking at art and this is quite independent of the street art project. But as I was going round I started noticing more and more stuff on the street, which was more exiting than what I was seeing in the galleries, and that is what reignited my interest in Street Art.