Cedar Lewisohn is a respected art critic and theorist in street art culture. He has curated shows at a number of prestigious art institutions including Tate Modern and is a recognised author and an artist. Beautiful Crime spoke to him about the contents of his latest book, ‘Abstract Graffiti,’ who’s doing what on the graffiti scene and the changing nature of art in public spaces.
We’d love to know – since everyone is still talking about it – do you think Hirst has turned himself in to a brand?
I’m a fan of his works, they had a big an effect on me in the 90′s when I was at college. But right now I am more interested in seeing works that have more to do with the maker. But labelling an artist as a corporation? Branding things and people is a part of the world we live in. The world and our economy mean that some artists operate in a way a corporation does. Employing lots of staff and so on.
What artists, trends and areas of interest do you touch upon in your book, ‘Abstract Graffiti’?
As well as the main notion of art on the streets becoming more abstract, one trend that seems to be emerging is different forms of activity by artists in various public spaces, as well as weird hybrids. I’ve looked at what’s going on in various regions of the globe, so places like Poland and Ukraine have been of particular interest.
There are many artists doing fantastic things, including Zbiok and Vova Vorotniov (From Poland and Ukraine) who have some great ideas and operate in a interesting ways. I’m interested in artists that come from countries with communist histories. I think he way this informs the content of their work gives a new perspective on subjects we think we know well. People’s geographical location very much affects their perspective on the world, so they then want to go and make art that reflects this, on the street.
With regards to artist activities in public spaces: who did you speak to for your research on this?
I spoke to various artists and theorists about it, one being artist Barbara Kruger, who is extremely intelligent and knowledgable on the subject matter. We got into a great discussion about who owns public space and the reasons for using public space. We discussed exactly what the concept of “a public” might be. I also discussed the idea of public space with a sociologist called Les Back. He looks at “who speaks” in public space; this includes the voices of governments, of advertising and even architecture, which is yet another form of communication within a public space.
The interesting thing about street art is that artists are kind of bypassing those sorts of decisions about who decides what goes in a public space by adding to them. Back also spoke a lot about racist graffiti, which can be viewed as a personal statement made in a public space. When people tipped white paint over the Stephen Lawrence memorial in Eltham for example. We may not agree with what they did, but their actions are a reflection of what some people think, and they used public space to express their opinions. They thought about it. The fact that they used white paint – it’s very telling.
Is the importance of tagging falling behind street art, as a strand of graffiti?
My first book was very much devoted to the fine line and difference between what is typically understood as street art and graffiti. I’m a big fan of graffiti and I always pull people up that dismiss the concept of tagging, which is a big part of graffiti. I think it can have more political resonance than a visually beautiful statement that street art might offer. Tagging hasn’t really been accepted but is potentially more political, more underground. Whilst it has been subsumed into consumerism in some ways, it has managed to maintain an important existence which can’t be commodified. You wouldn’t have street art or such a dense interesting street art history without tagging, its a key instigating factor for the scene’s substance and emergence.
Has the media and art world’s acceptance of the street art and graffiti industry made it easier for artists to be more experimental within it?
I think it has. There is certainly a bigger acceptance than there was ten years ago and whilst the media don’t always understand it, they have helped in raising its awareness. There are a lot of phases with street art and graffiti – some artists are still using styles from the early noughties, for example. And there is always a lot of rubbish to sift through to find the good stuff, but I find it worthwhile.
What do you think about street art as an investment, its arrival in the art market and the opinion-formers’ views?
I think a lot of people buy art as an investment, although I don’t think it’s the best way to buy art – I think you should buy art because you love it. But saying that, perhaps those invested artworks are still attached to the walls of a home and enjoyed by the owners. It’s been fascinating to see how street art and graffiti has entered the art market. I like the idea of fans buying it very cheaply and trading it on ebay.
The idea of who the tastemakers are is interesting. There are a few experts and galleries around the world that have power as tastemakers. But the good thing about street art is that you can put it on the street and put it online and have it seen by many people quite quickly and easily, even if the tastemakers aren’t shouting your name. This makes it a democratic process. It might not always lead to the best art, but that’s democracy for you!
Is there any artists doing something a bit different, or advancing a trend?
I don’t really like to single out any names, but I do think different forms of abstraction happening all over the world is a fascinating emerging trend. There’s a lot happening in Barcelona from artists like Sixie and ZoZEN. Russia, Poland and Brazil all offer some exciting artists right now that are reflecting the history of where they’re from. So there’s a lot concerning a place’s history to be found in the content of their work.
How would you label yourself and your profession?
I am primarily known as a curator and writer, but I have always been an artist as well. I’m trying to focus a bit more of my time on my art, and I’m having a lot of fun with that. I try and have fun with all the projects I work on.
‘Abstract Graffiti’ by Cedar Lewisohn is published by Merrell and be can purchased for £19.95 here.
Cedar Lewisohn’s next curatorial show is ‘Les Fleurs du Mal – New Art From London’ at the Awangarda Gallery, BWA Wrocław, Poland which runs until 17th June 2012.
He will also be speaking at Istanbul Modern on the exhibition ‘Fifty Years Of Urban Walls: A Burhan Doğançay Retrospective’ on 26th May 2012.
Lastly, the artist has work in the exhibition “Forward Thinking” which will be on show at Glenfiddich Distillery, Dufftown, Keith, Bannffshire, AB55 4DH from 1th June – 31st July 2012.