Sitting in the Berlin apartment of my old professor, The Family and I described our discovery of the artistic ferment in the city. The photographers, painters, and craftsmen in the weekend’s art market by the Spree, the murals on the walls of tall apartment blocks, the reimagining of the Berlin Wall as a canvas for the ideas of a triumphant philosophy, its connection with the quadriga on the Brandenburger Gate. I thought that all this was as much street art as that which was made and remade on walls at the Mauerpark, Rosenthaler Strasse, or Urban Spree, or even on some walls on their road. My professor and his wife are the post-war generation of thinkers: steeped in the ideas of internationalism and a certain classic aesthetics. They disagreed with the equivalences I made. The best of part of such intellectual disagreement is that it allows you to sharpen your ideas. That’s what this post is about.
I don’t think it was a disagreement over commissioned or guerilla art. They quite enjoy Banksy, but they also loved the works of anonymous Bihari folk artists who’d been commissioned by the state government to paint on certain stretches of walls. It may be that the durability of the piece was an issue. I was unwilling to yield this ground. Durability is a concern in the commerce surrounding art. Insistence on it would leave out the most spectacular works of Cai Guo-Qiang: the fireworks displays which are incredible pieces of street art. There is a documentary called “Stairway to Heaven” on his art which is available on Netflix, and several video recordings on YouTube. They bear the same relation to the work that my photos of murals do.
Were they trying to distinguish between artistic intent and accident? I wouldn’t disagree with this criterion. Leonardo da Vinci advised: “‘If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.” But for every artist, including perhaps all photographers, the accident is the seed around which the artist’s intention crystallises. The bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on Ku’damm in Berlin has mosaics which are now visible from the street. Is this street art? I believe not. The intention of the bombing raid was not to convert the church into a piece of art. It can’t even be compared to Marcel Duchamp painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It is only in the imputation of artistic intent to works that people might differ.
So let me just stick to a simple definition of art: any deliberate attempt to please the senses. And go with a simple definition of street art: any art that is freely available to a passerby. I give you some of my favourites in the slideshow above.