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Street Art, Killing Street Art

By Ben Schuman Stoler in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 25, 2011 4:30PM

Look, we all appreciate street art. Even 1st Ward Ald. Proco Joe Moreno, the new go-to graffiti blasting quotesman, has said it’s not street art qua street art he’s against, it’s the destruction of property aspect of it all. Whatever. If arting on a wall is destroying it, we have bigger problems. The fact is, Chicago’s infamous war on graffiti has only entrenched this city’s street art credentials. The biggest threat to street art is street art itself. Gimmicky and hypocritical marketing techniques, like those used this week by the Maxwell Colette Gallery and Pawn Works to pump up tonight’s Gaia show, aren’t just taking the “street” out of street art, they’re taking away the fun.

In a replay of their Banksy campaign from last May, when they released “the world's first detail pictures” of Banksy’s, erm, underground work in Chicago with the condescending invitation, “If you ask us nicely we may even tell you where it is located,” right before they had a show featuring him, Collette and Pawn Works haven't shied away from using the attention received by Gaia's recent works to promote tonight’s show.

The works themselves are gorgeous and meaningful and, yes, ballsy. The city is, honestly, better with Gaia’s pieces (and those of the other Chicago street art stalwarts). The Baltimore artist has a way of cutting through so many urban policy conversations, right to the core of people interacting with others and with the urban environment. The conversations Gaia’s pieces have kicked off are likewise appreciated.

And yet, it’s difficult to appreciate it all. So much of it seems suspicious - why are they made? The medium has been co-opted by the knowledge that these pieces are timed to sell as much as possible.

But what about that thing called PR? Would it have been better if the MCG left predictable flyers at cafes? Or shot out bland press releases? It’s a fair point because, first of all, nobody likes a hater; second, it’s all entirely within MCG, Pawn Works' and the artists’ rights to pimp their wares. It’s called America. In some circles, it’s called success. Woe to the city or the critics that disown it all.

The main worry, though, is that gimmicks like Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop and Invader’s merchandise, and Shepard Fairey’s ubiquitousness, will go to the next step. The first half of “street art” became irrelevant years ago when cities realized that street art was a tourist boon and some of the luster of Bomb The Suburbs eroded away. But now with the purpose of the work shrouded in skepticism, it's the second half of the term - “art” - that’s in danger.

The Maxwell Colette Gallery's
Gaia; Resplendent Semblance's opening reception, put on with Pawn Works, is tonight, from 6-9 at 833 W. Chicago Ave., Suite 200. It runs until May 7.