In the town where I grew up there was a shop called ‘But is it Art’ that sold objects and trinkets that were loosely related to the subject of art. It was one of the better shops in town, a place you always looked first when birthdays and Christmas came around, but I don’t think anybody was ever able to answer the question with a positive or a negative.
The same question popped into my mind recently when I decided to visit the ‘Né Dans La Rue’ (Born in the Street) exhibition at the Fondation Cartier. The idea of the show is to tell the history of graffiti and street art from its beginnings in New York up until today, with several new specially commissioned pieces displayed both inside and outside the building. The exhibition is an incredibly rich one, and a visitor could spend hours looking through the documents and watching the fascinating films that accompany the show, but I’m not sure that they would be able to answer the question afterwards either.
Nevertheless, if you are planning a trip to Paris before the end of the year (the show ends on November the 29th) this is one exhibition you really should try to catch. The photos that I have included here are all from the perimeter of the building as photography inside the show is strictly forbidden. However, thinking back now, it is not the artwork inside the show that sticks in my mind, but the socio-historic elements, and these would be very difficult to catch in coloured pixels anyway.
I have never been to New York and remember little of the 1970s, but I was an impressionable teenager when the shockwaves of this movement arrived in the suburbs and small towns of England in the 1980s. I was fascinated therefore to see the collection of tag sketchbooks which were similar to those friends of mine kept, and hear the music again that was so tightly linked to this world. I never got involved, feeling that I would simply be mimicking somebody else’s culture, and I still feel today that this is creation that you have to live.
Was it the intention of the curators to organise the exhibition in this way? Walking around, looking at the hand-sketched cards advertising rap events and films showing people spraying tags at these same shows, it is impossible not to see this as anything other than a complete integrated movement. As a juxtaposition, films also show the New York of the early 70s, a bankrupt city where immigrant groups had been left to fend for themselves in the tough city centre, and a place the rich only ever visited when working.
Tagging was therefore a way to show people in power that there were others who existed and who also had a voice. This becomes even clearer in the film ‘Pixo’ which centres on gangs in Sao Paolo in Brazil today. They have developed a new form of tagging known as Pixaçao which is almost a language in itself. One illiterate youth in the film is shown struggling with printed text on a poster, but then quickly translating all the pixaçao messages written on surrounding walls.
These are all powerful messages. A notebook from one tagger lists how and where other taggers had been killed in action (crushed by trains or shot mostly!), whilst a full subway maintenance worker outfit in a glass container shows how the taggers disguised themselves in order to reach their train canvases. Where was the art though? It was one of the most interesting sociological exhibitions I had visited in a long time, but when I entered the room where the contemporary ‘inspired by graffiti’ creations stood, I couldn’t help but feel that they seemed weak and diluted against the vibrancy of the originals.
‘But is it art?’ I asked myself again before taking the staircase up to the shop. I had come full circle, finding myself again in a place where objects have price tags. I bought a t-shirt, a cute one for a child which was covered in the tags of some of the featured artists. A tag, a label, Cartier. I don’t know if it is art, but what shows acceptance more than capitalist consumption?
Né dans la Rue
Fondation Cartier pour l'art Contemporain
261 Boulevard Raspail, 75014
Until November 29th
If you are interested in urban creation, you can also download my free Street Art walk.