Sometimes you miss the obvious thing, even when you’ve been looking at it for years. Yesterday, as I walked along the Quai de Marne to the Philharmonie de Paris in the early morning rain, I realised the part that aerosols played in the decline of the mural as a form of community art practice. I’d been trained as a muralist in the early 1980s (though was never a very good one) and have thought a good deal about why the practice gradually came to an end. There are a number of explanations that could be proposed. After the first generation, fewer community artists were trained as painters. Urban regeneration and gentrification changed the character of public space from the late 1980s. Project work led to a depoliticisation of commissions. Time became more pressured (and murals take a lot of time). The form was not really very accessible, at least in comparison with the performing arts. Visual culture became increasingly saturated with commercial, consumer-oriented imagery. What I hadn’t thought about was the spray can.
Technology is always changing artistic practice. The invention of the airbrush gave artists a new visual vocabulary, but it was time-consuming, expensive and skilled work. The aerosol is cheap and portable. In the 1980s, its price fell steadily and put the means of mural production literally into the hands of more people, who used it to create new visual forms, from tags to elaborate murals, and a culture with its own references, values and rules. It allowed many who felt disregarded or excluded in the urban space to mark their presence—and if the rich called it vandalism, so what? This was and remains an expression of cultural democracy, people making art in public, without asking permission, or help. This is a claim for space and recognition. Like all art, most is of limited interest: tagging is often basic and repetitive. But it’s still a creative act. There is no difference between what a graffiti artist does and what a muralist does, even if the muralist is Stanley Spencer or Michelangelo. There may be vast differences in their craft, originality, ambition, resonance and feeling, and in the sense they create. But, as I argued in the previous post, the artistic act is essentially the same. It signifies a willingness to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy art. And the aerosol puts the means of visual production in the hands of pretty much anyone, just as digital technology has done in other fields.