The unlikely marriage of art and street culture: The good, the bad and the ugly

October 08, 2018

The unlikely marriage of art and street culture: The good, the bad and the ugly

I grew up in the 80's, and my childhood’s recollections are of a world where things were fairly compartmentalised. Fashion, food or music each had defined boundaries and would rarely mix. Art was (at least that’s how I perceived it) the most impenetrable. Reserved to a selected few, the elite or the rich, art always had some kind of mystic surrounding it. I am sure we all recall school visits to various museums, and I vividly remember that even the teachers looked a bit out of place, in some kind of “holy” environment that commoners were only allowed to observe from a distance. Apart from a lazy attempt at suggesting Picasso, no teenager growing up in the 80's would be able to name a contemporary artist, and much less had one on his sneakers or shirt.

Oh boy how things have changed! I could quote one of my favourite movie character and say, “personally, I blame MTV”, but I think it would be too diminutive. Internet has brought down barriers like nothing else before, and art has been “democratised” at an unprecedented pace. Whether you want it or not, everybody is now exposed to art in one-way or another. In theory, I should be happy about this, I make a living selling fine art… The reality is a bit different, since everything accessible is nowadays milked and diluted into oblivion.

So how should we collectively be excited about art and street culture (or generally fashion) colliding? There is no cut and dry answer, but here is the good, the bad and the ugly.

THE GOOD

I’ve always hated the way art was restricted to a selected few, so the current status of the craft makes me happy, art is now for everyone. Ask any teenager today, and they’ll be able to give you names like Keith Haring, Basquiat, Condo or Daniel Arsham. This is generally a good thing, because it exposes young minds to some of the greatest and most important artists of our times. Eventually, some of them will go a bit deeper into it, start researching the artists, and might develop a broadened sense of the arts, maybe a career. A couple of years ago, brands realised that art was the last carve out of contemporary culture that they had not yet tapped into.

We were all gradually introduced to very subtle “collaborations” between well-established brands and estates of several artists. It felt truly special, unique, and for the most part the collaborations still maintained a certain degree of genuineness between both parties, but most importantly to the consumers. Some companies still do it, and do it good! Case to point, Etnia Barcelona released a limited edition run of sunglasses with Jean-Michel Basquiat (yes, him again) a couple of years ago. The collaboration was executed very elegantly. The attention given to the product itself was insane, and nicely complimented by a first class packaging, with loads of information about the artist, his body of work, and his legacy actively managed by the foundation. The entire collaboration felt “whole”, neither the world of art nor the customer got the crappy hand of the stick. The “box logo” brand has also done a consistently good job at collaborations with little known (Dash Snow anyone?) artists, and I commend them for that. Pushing things further and being real, which one of you had ever heard of Condo before he made the cover for the Kanye album? (Don’t worry, I’ll wait). Case to point, exposure is good (or at least can be), provided it introduces new artists to the masses in an elegant manner.

As much as I could give you quite a few similar examples, they are often outweighed by downright lazy and borderline insulting collaborations. Let’s take a look at the bad side of this marriage.

THE BAD

Let’s start with the one sided aspect of it all. Art collaborations are force fed to the consumers; we don’t get to pick whom we would like to be featured on a shirt or sneakers. Brands have become lazy and risk averse, so instead of pushing new artists and gaining legitimacy in their efforts, they keep rehashing the same thing all over again. I mean seriously, how many more collaborations with Keith Haring or Basquiat can we collectively digest, it’s gotten ridiculous! Even online publications, often regarded as the authority on street culture, started jumping on the bandwagon. After all it’s easy to add “art” to your name and open another Instagram account. The result you might ask? A non-stop force-feeding of the same 5 artists (celebrity artists at that) with zero educational content or properly articulated art context. To add insult to injury, the writers are for the most part, jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. Art has now become a means to an end, selling products that would otherwise not move. It has become the “de facto” strategy for unimaginative and stagnant brands. Shoe is not moving? Let’s slap an old master painting on it, make it a limited edition and call it a day, the teens will love it. I understand that it takes two to tango, and that the rationale is purely economic. Brands need art to cater to their consumers to boost their sales, and estates of the artists need to license the rights of the paintings to maintain and support the fairly huge costs it takes them to operate.

All of the above has contributed to somehow diluting art, and sometimes dull it down to just a name (or an image) pasted on a product.

THE UGLY

From a global perspective, I do understand that some initiatives are bound to have a good and a bad side as discussed above, it’s only fair. I have a problem when it gets downright ugly or foolish, and we’ve seen a lot of these. And my personal feeling is that it’s not the end of it. Let’s queue some examples that must have the artists rolling in their grave, may their souls rest in peace. A strong contender for the most nonsense collaboration would be a ski brand (that I will not expose) and Basquiat. It’s painful for me to articulate how cringe worthy this collaboration was. I get that Basquiat made a few trips to Switzerland to see his dealer Bruno Bischofberger back in the day, but it’s a bit of a stretch (am being polite) to put his work on a pair of skis (I’ve been to the Opera once, it doesn’t make me a singer). Powerhouses in the luxury industry have also succumbed to the call of art for cash. The monogram firm had probably one of the most distasteful collaboration last year when it decided to slap some old masters on their bags. I truly felt ashamed for Monet, Manet and Gauguin, who had spent their entire lives dedicated to their crafts, for them to end up a century after on a massively produced bag. Downright shameful and stupid. I would like to discuss street wear boutiques opening an art gallery, but I’m afraid that the words used to describe my feelings about it will likely lead to this article being unpublished. You get the idea.

So don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely excited about art crossing over to fashion and street culture, but only when it’s done right. We are bound to see some very bad collaborations being teased on our Instagram feed, there is just no way around it. Rather, let’s focus on the ones that elevate the conversation, and when nobody feels shorted. Often times, what makes a great piece of art is the subtle composition of the various elements that create something greater than the sum of their parts. A good collaboration should feel the same. And do us all a favour before you buy your next art collaboration sneaker or t-shirt, Wikipedia the artist’s page, that’s the very least you owe them.

See you at the next in-store registration.

Author: Sylvain Gaillard

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