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December 11, 2017
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Although fame has diluted his street art credentials, Banksy still finds something arresting to say on this London wall (Source: banksy.co.uk).

Street art is literally splattered all over London.

Whether it takes the form of stickers, murals, stencils or graffiti, subversive images and text pervade walls in every part of town. Many view this art form as an anti-social splurge of criminal activity; yet an increasing number of artists consider it the most direct way to engage an audience and make a name for themselves.

The liberation of wall space in a city full of advertising hoardings and imposing edifices reminds us of the rebellious and unruly nature of London. Combining skilful technique, a social critique and appropriate juxtaposition, modern street art can echo the work of eighteenth-century cartoonists who continually undermined the authority of the powerful English ruling elite with their political satire and savage wit. 

The godfather of stencil art Blek Le Rat 
may have lost his shield of anonymity but
his legend continues to grow
(Source: bleklerat.free.fr).

The cartoon holds an important place in the history of art. Derived from the Italian word cartone, meaning "pasteboard" or "cardboard," a cartoon was typically used in the preparation of frescoes to link the component parts of the composition when painted on damp plaster. A bag of soot would be patted over a pinpricked cartoon to leave an indelible "black dot" outline of the design against the wall, like an early form of stencil. It was a technique used by great Renaissance painters of the sixteenth century, such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael. The cartoon became highly prized in its own right, as it allowed the eye a revelatory glimpse into the process of a master in the act of creation.

Two hundred years later, the cartoon began to take on a more political nature. With the Age of Enlightenment in eighteenth-century Europe, the cartoon became a powerful artistic vehicle for political and social satire. Essentially, a philosophically-inspired cultural movement sought to mobilise the power of reason, science and knowledge in the face of superstition and abuse of power by Church and State. With the advent and wide distribution of the printing press, this cultural wind of change had the technological means to disseminate its message to a huge swathe of people, thus sparking a cultural shift in society.

The new mood of enlightenment elicited a profound change in the English psyche. Satirical art came into being. Anyone with artistic skill, a subtle perceptiveness of society and biting wit had the freedom to shine a harsh, merciless light onto powerful individuals and institutions through the medium of political cartoons. A skilful use of caricature and allusion could, slowly but surely, unstitch the fabric of an unjust society through artistry tinged with scornful humour.

Painting a picture within a picture by using careful juxtaposition and subtle symbolism was a truly revolutionary development at the time. Simultaneously mocking and preaching, the cartoon became an effective tool of propaganda in converting people to a cause and new ideas.

William Hogarth is considered one of the founding fathers of the political cartoon alongside such luminaries as fellow Englishmen Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray. Honore Daumier made similar waves in France. All were classically trained and talented artists who had attempted to gain recognition in the mainstream art world; each instead found his interests best served by producing excellent drawings that continually pulled the rug of arrogant certainty from under the well-shod feet of the ruling elite.

Hogarth's Gin Lane is shocking in its por-
trayal of mid-18th century London but the  
real power of the drawing lay in its coded 
symbolism (Source: britishmuseum.org).

Arguably the best example of the quality and power of Hogarth's work came in his famous print, Gin Lane (1751). On first sight, it's a shocking portrayal of the effects that the excessive consumption of spirits was having on London's poor and working classes, a very real problem in mid-eighteenth century England. But as your eyes adjust to the wider scene you become aware of the picture's heavily-ladened symbolism. Gin Lane remains a brilliant examination of satire, skillfully using caricuture, wit and irony to illustrate a society on the edge of ruin in which only pawnbrokers, coffin makers and distillers seem to profit.

A prototype of modern tabloid journalism, Gin Lane was sold cheaply and distributed to reach as many people as possible. It went on to have an immediate impact. In the same year that it was published, Parliament passed the Gin Act, which regulated the sale of alcohol.

Fast-forward two hundred and fifty years and the world has transformed into a very different place. The power of the cartoon has waned in a society driven by technological advancement, a 24-hour syndicated news feed, a global economy, consumerism and a political system that seeks to hijack new strains of thought. In this vacuum, a particular variation of street art has begun to fill the void.

During the early 1980s, stencil-painted rats began to mysteriously appear on the walls of Paris streets. This pioneering development transformed the stencil from basic lettering to pictorial art; it was a novel way of engaging with an audience that would never consider stepping inside a gallery. Blek Le Rat was a Parisian who had been inspired by New York graffiti artists when he had visited the city in 1971. He came to develop his own style and technique in tune with his home town's artistic sensibility and architecture.

 Anyone with artistic skill, a subtle perceptiveness of society and biting wit had the freedom to shine a harsh, merciless light onto powerful individuals and institutions through the medium of political cartoons.

Blek underlined the socio-political nature of his work and signature image in a 2008 interview, explaining that "the rat is the only wild animal living free in the cities, starting plagues just like street art." Blek's activism was stalled when his true identity was revealed in 1991, after being arrested while stencilling a replica of Caravaggio's Madonna and Child. No longer anonymous, the aura of his work diminished; yet he created a legacy of "guerrilla art" that many would follow.

One individual who did was a freehand graffiti artist known as Banksy, who had begun to create ripples within the Bristol underground music/art scene of the early 1990s. Co-opting Blek's stencil technique, Banksy's work became noticeable on the city walls of Bristol and London. His satirical and subversive works combine irreverant dark humour with political and social commentary, leaving an imprint everywhere - from the walls of East London to the wall that separates Palestinian territories from Israel.

Banksy's career has moved along the opposite path of eighteenth-century cartoonists. While the likes of Hogarth travelled from the mainstream to the edges of the fine art world, Banksy is now a stitch in the fabric of the modern art fraternity. His pieces now make six-figure sums at auction. Local government organisations cover his work with Perspex and promote it as a tourist attraction.

Banksy, however, has been kissed to death. Unfortunately, popularity breeds contempt in the world of street art and Banksy's credibility as an agent of social disorientation has plummeted. Although he still retains the power of anonymity and surprise, his main strength lies in his methods, which have been commandeered by individuals and organisations looking to effect societal change.

Post-surrealist artist Robert Montgomery, 
liberates advertising space to get his  
message directly across to the people
(Source: robertmontgomery.org).

There is the "post-situationist" Scottish artist Robert Montgomery, who spends his nights plastering advertising billboards in London with posters covered with his elegant poetry. His elegant prose sits as white typography against a black background, deconstructing consumerism, beauty and hypocrisy for an advert-weary public. Occupy LSX uses anonymity, the requisition of space, juxtaposition and satirical images, all encompassed in a guise of performance/reality art that challenges the inequalities of the current political and economic system.

Further afield, the elusive Moscow art "terrorist" P183 is making his mark with surrealist-inspired impressions and installations that have started to pop up in the Russian capital. Assisted by social media, the plague is spreading far, wide and very quickly. The "Banksy effect" is undeniable.

Throughout history, art has been central to the subversion of orthodox thought and the spread of new ideas at times of great social and cultural change. In particular, the cartoon has become an agent for the dissemination of political ideas, adapted and transformed by artists seeking to engage with the world. Just like the eighteenth-century cartoonists, street art strips away the smug bubble of elitism from the appreciation of art and takes it directly to the people. Provocative, ephemeral and playful, this urban art form is a surreptitious revolution occurring as the world sleeps, tossing and turning from its subliminal dreams. 

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