Masterpiece or Eyesore? Street Art and the Battle for Public Spaces

Spend any time in a city of even modest size and chances are you will have been confronted by the abundance of visual stimulation that surrounds. It seems that everywhere we look we are bombarded with images screaming for our attention. It can be incredibly noisy.  In amongst the din, some real gems come to light. I am talking about street art.

Professor Alison Young is an expert on the subject of street art, and has made it the focus of her academic career. She has written three books on the subject. Her most recent Street Art World delves into this fascinating subject and tries to answer a number of questions. Questions like what is street art? Is it the same as graffiti? Does it have to be in a gallery, or at the very least officially sanctioned to be regarded as art at all? These questions are not new, and while this book doesn’t definitively close the debate once and for all, it provides an interesting and compelling salvo on the side of urban artists.

Often derided as vandalism and banished, street art brings a vibrancy and an energy to a city. It provides tangible proof that living, breathing, and feeling human beings occupy the space; and not just soulless corporate automatons. Without street art our public spaces would be completely monopolised by the McDonald’s and Nikes of this world. Our world would be sterilised and airbrushed beyond all recognition from reality.

Aside from the aesthetic, street art, as with any art, challenges us to think. Whether it’s a commissioned mural, a cheeky stencil or a statement scrawled across a wall street art provides an insight into the collective psyche of a populace. It is a snap shot of the prevailing feelings and controversies of the day. Take for instance the current wave of so called ‘bollard art’ popping up across Melbourne. In response to a number of incidents both locally and abroad, it was deemed necessary by the powers that be to erect concrete blocks in places where people gather in large numbers. Within a day, local artists began anonymously turning the grey concrete from depressing eyesores into interesting pieces of art. In addition to making the blocks more attractive, the beautification project raises the question about what citizens will tolerate in the name of their ‘safety’.

For your ‘To Read’ List:

Alison Young- Street Art World (2016) (Aus)

The Luminaries-Eleanor Catton

The winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2013, The Luminaries is an extraordinary work that uses well known and recognisable story telling techniques, all while pulling the wool over our eyes. A whopping great tome of 832 pages Catton uses 19th century language and styling in a way that will be familiar to most readers. But the story and the handling of character development are not.

Set on the west coast of southern New Zealand during the gold rush of the 1860 weaves together a cast of characters that start out as disparate entities but their lives and their tales become increasingly entwined as they each retell their version of events. At the centre of the narrative is a controversy surrounding the suspicious death of a local hermit; the mysterious disappearance of a wealthy member of the community; the passing out of a popular working girl in the main street as a result of some dodgy opium and the ownership of a pile of gold.

The opening of the book is as much a part of the great deception of this book as anything else. We are presented in the opening pages with elaborately drawn astrological charts and character tables which leads you to think that you have your work cut out for you. I was expecting something of the weight and complexity of a Wolf Hall or Bringing Up the Bodies. But, the more you read, the lighter the story becomes. The characters become less substantial and the story becomes less important.

This book is more of an intellectual exercise than a work of storytelling. It challenges the reader to question what we expect from a novel like this. For me I must admit that I’m not entirely convinced that the experiment worked. It seems that I still need a bit more of a story to maintain my interest, because I found my connection with the book waned from about the 300 page or so and it became a bit of a chore to finish. Given that, I’m not all together convinced that this was the book I would have picked to win the Man Booker. Of  short-listed entries for the same year I prefer the Colm Toibin. However, the fun thing about literary prizes is the debates you can have over the result, so I would encourage you to give this a go so that you can join the discussion.

The Strays- Emily Bitto

Short-listed for the 2015 Stella Prize, Emily Bitto’s novel The Strays is a thoroughly enjoyable novel from a talented new writer. Set in the fascinating world of the Melbourne modern art scene of the 1930’s and 1940’s, most notably the talented artists and their supporters that congregated at Heide.

Heide in Bulleen, east of Melbourne, was the home of John and Sunday Reed, they famously opened their home to a group of artists including Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, and Sidney Nolan. Their collective contribution to Australian art in the 20th century is unsurpassed. But their story was about more than just art, it was about a way of life that stood in stark contrast with the staid, conservatism that prevailed in Melbourne society at the time. They were bohemian and lived a life free of the conventions of accepted morality. The larger than life characters and the almost soap opera-like goings on of the Heide Circle have developed into legend and have long been fodder for the imaginations of writers and other artists. Alex Miller’s 2011, Autumn Laing covered similar territory.

In The Strays, Bitto has changed the names and locations enough to make her story more of a pastiche of that world. The tale is told from the perspective of an observer on the fringe of the group, a young girl called Lily. Lily, the only daughter of a middle-class Melbourne family moves to a new school in Box Hill, which back then was on the semi-rural outskirts of Melbourne. It was the later part of the Depression, and her family had moved there so her father could find work. On her first day of school, Lily meets Eva Trentham, the middle daughter of avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. Lily and Eva become best friends ‘in the way that only pre-pubescent girls can’ and Lily becomes captivated by Eva’s family and their unconventional lifestyle. Lily is in many ways jealous of the exciting and very adult world that Eva and her sisters are growing up in.

Lily is retelling the story as an adult, recalling her life as a child. Her reminiscences while embedded in the innocence and naivety of childhood, also brings with them the benefit of wisdom and hindsight that the grown-up Lily can now add to the situation.

Bitto’s novel is a captivating and entertaining read which explores some of the moral dilemmas surrounding art, artists and creativity in general. There is an unwritten understanding that for creative and artistic people the usual codes of morality and behaviour do not apply. It is understood that to create great art, these people need to be able to operate outside of so called ‘normality’. However, as Bitto’s novel demonstrates, such a lifestyle is not without its casualties. As Lily observes towards the end of the book, it was the Trentham children that were sacrificed in the name of art.

When Evan Trentham and his wife invite their artist friends into their home, they also invite them into their family. Their practice of taking in strays includes Lily. There is a degree of naiveté about the way they trust their friends so implicitly to know where the line is, and that the can expect loyalty from them. The other artists, whether they realise it or not, are take advantage of their generosity; each in their own way taking what they need from them with little in return. whether it be the time and freedom to paint without needing to take a day job; the exposure that association with the Trenthams gives them and the subsequent boost to their careers; or just their daughters.

The relationship between the Trentham children and the artists in residence in the Trentham house brings to mind recent real life controversies in the art world. In particular the case surrounding photographer Bill Henson, and an exhibit featuring photographs of naked young children. The exhibition

raised serious questions about how far artists can stretch the line between what is art and what is pornography, and whether such images constitute abuse. While it is the purview of artists to challenge us and make us uncomfortable at times, it was clear to many that the line had been crossed.