MoCA’s “Art in the Streets”: Some thoughts

Wild Style mural by Zephyr, photo by Martha Cooper 1983

So I finally got over to see MoCA’s “Art in the Streets,” and the place was packed. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so many black, brown and white people — from kids up to grandparents — in a museum looking at art. In fact, as I was leaving the space, a 20-something woman walked in with her friends and said, “I haven’t been to the MoCA since I was sixteen years old.”

Clearly, “Art in the Streets” is bringing in record numbers of people, and many of them are not regular art museum-goers. That’s great, right?

It is, but I have mixed feelings about this exhibition. When I left the museum, I felt like I had just spent a couple hours at the county fair, complete with a haunted house, a freak show and hucksters telling me to Step right up to win a stuffed pink bear the size of a Mini Cooper (or an Obey t-shirt. Same thing). Okay, maybe this is a slight exaggeration, but there’s so much going on in the Geffen space, it can be a little overwhelming. There were young dudes flying through the air on skate boards. Everywhere I walked, there were texters and twitterers frantically typing into their phones, oblivious to oncoming traffic.

And then there was the art… there was a lot of art. Art that should be out in the city, a single piece standing alone on a corner, is instead arranged side by side in the Geffen space. I guess any museum/gallery exhibition of street art is inherently problematic (or oxymoronic…like organizing an anarchists’ collective). The beauty of street art is when you come across a piece by accident in a place you would never expect, and suddenly the urban landscape becomes serendipitous and more human. When street art is taken out of its natural habitat, it loses something. It’s like seeing a bunch of wild animals lined up next to each other in cages instead of catching a glimpse of one out in the wild. The magic’s gone. In this sense, “Art in the Streets” feels unnatural and showy, like it’s trying too hard. When I left MoCA, I didn’t feel like I’d experienced something transcendent. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?

The show is a retrospective, so it doesn’t break any new ground, which is fine, but it felt a bit like a broken record (or “Street Market, Part II”). Retrospectives have the advantage of hindsight, but “Art in the Streets” doesn’t seem to be aware of this. It would be interesting to inject a little cultural context, so viewers gain an understanding of how this genre evolved over the years. Instead, “Art in the Streets” tries to overwhelm the visitor with its sheer size and variety packed into one venue. A bit of subtlty, a bit of insight, just a little bit of context might have made a huge difference. Street art was born out of urban blight. Cities used to be one big canvas…acknowledging the social factors involved in this art form’s ascent would have made for a more thoughtful exhibition. Instead, it feels like a carnival.

But everyone else seems to love the show, so I guess I’m the only one who has reservations… Actually, Christopher Knight has a few things to say about “Art in the Streets.” Glad to see I’m not the only one.

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~ by Valerie Palmer on May 30, 2011.

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