Art and Open Source

Street art mural by the artist Blu, depicting a gigantic man made of bananas
Von Stefano.questioli in der Wikipedia auf Italienisch, CC BY 3.0,

Do artists make art to be collected? Or to be heard? The short answer is it’s up to the artist. It can be one or the other, or both, or neither. This question has been on my mind since I read this:

Blu spent all weekend destroying his artwork. The symbolic act was in protest of a Bologna exhibition which features more than 250 pieces of street art plucked from their urban settings and placed inside a museum. Blu objected to both the exhibit’s backers—prominent bankers—and its tactics of removing street art from the streets themselves.

More here in this Italian article written by Wu Ming:

Some quotes translated from the Italian:

“…politicians pretending to solve the contradictions of Bologna, a city which on the one hand criminalizes graffiti, puts 16-year-old artists on trial as criminals, praises “urban decorum”, and on the other hand celebrates herself as the cradle of street art and wants to take it for glory on the market.”

“We are faced with arrogant landlords who act as colonial governors and think they’re free to take murals off our walls. The only thing left to do is to make these paintings disappear, to snatch them from those claws, to make hoarding impossible.”

The people who take this action [obscuring the murals to prevent them being taken] can tell the difference between who has money, power and the highest offices, and who deploys creativity and intelligence.”

My understanding of Blu is that he makes art when it can be incorporated into the physical space of a city, seen either intentionally by those that seek his work or as a daily backdrop to the local people’s life- but always there. His work in XM24 space in Italy was groundbreaking and incorporated into larger protests of the time. But street artists rarely own what they write or paint on, so the decision to remove the murals and place them in a space that was separate from the streets, then further separated by an admission charge [13Euro regular price, 11Euro reduced (presumably students/seniors)], and finally even further separated from the public by the prospect of sale to conservative banking families- none of that was Blu’s decision or under his control. He felt that the only way to prevent this from happening- since he couldn’t buy the buildings or stop the bankers- was to destroy his own work, decades of it. To be in a place as an artist where one feels that the only actionable decision of artistic control is destruction- that’s a very difficult/brave decision.

I do want to stress that collating authentic art with the poverty of the artist is wrong. The idea that art is somehow more authentic if the labor is disconnected from commerce is a toxic idea that hurts the artists who have a drive to further their work/career, and also need to pay their bills. Blu does make money from his art- but- and here’s the crux- he makes money from the art that he chooses to sell. From what I can find, he has sold silkscreen prints and a DVD with time-lapse documentation of murals, hand-drawn animations, and other content. In a rare interview found here, Blu says,

“I sell some drawings and I make the money I need to go on with my projects.

I try to avoid other kind of works such as commissions from companies and advertising, which is something i don’t really like.

I’m not economically rich but I’m billionaire in happiness.”

Blu doesn’t want his murals sold. He doesn’t want them to move. Decay, yes. Be painted over and replaced by new street art? It happens. Taken? No. The location is a significant element of each mural. Every mural is photographed and the physical work is allowed to exist without the urgency of corporal preservation. So here’s an interesting thought about the difference between experiencing art and collecting it. Why assume that all art needs to last? I went through Wu Ming’s article and read Italian comments saying that the work was always intended to decay, that it did have a life span that included death, and that taking the murals out of their original space in order to preserve them went against these ideas of accessibility and impermanence. People spoke about having the murals take root in their memories- a daily commute that went past a certain one, or a significant moment where a mural looms in the background. They spoke about how sometimes the murals would suddenly appear and sometimes just as abruptly disappear- either by construction or a disgruntled landlord. They made a distinction between the Mona Lisa and Blu’s murals, for example, saying that the murals were less like a venerated, commissioned portrait and more analogous to wild animals. The idea is less that Blu’s art needs to be rescued by museums and collectors, to be preserved for an indefinite period of time, but rather that the mural is intentionally made as a living thing in a living environment- growing, changing, and sometimes disappearing, continuing to exist only in photographs and memories. 

One thing that stood out to me through reading more about this were glimmers of the concept of open source. This term has been living mostly in the tech world, so it’s interesting to see artists use it- it is a concept that some would describe as a philosophical belief/movement, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. As one of the commentators put it:

“Above all, there was the beauty of a concept: street art is for everyone or for no one, it cannot become a privilege of those who do the hoarding, it cannot become a tool of further privatization. If you want this, we prefer to disappear. It is a political action, ethics, pedagogical. And that makes nice even a gray wall.”

Open source embraces creativity, collaboration, transparency, and accessibility. Blu did not experience that with the Palazzo Pepoli – Museo della Storia di Bologna, and so in this instance, he preferred to disappear. Some people disagree with his decision. Some people supported him and helped paint over the murals in Bologna. Blu’s murals can still be found all around the world. His art is fascinating and thought-provoking and I look forward what he will create next.

More on this from Brooklyn Street Art and The Telegraph.