Cave Walls in City Streets: Urban Art
By Tom Harvey
13 Feb 2012
When most people think of 'art' what springs to mind for most people is the work of mostly dead white men whose work adorns the walls of galleries and museums in places like Paris, London, New York, and so on. While 'art' has come to be associated with an antiquated idea of 'high culture', itself largely a by-product of the European imperialist idea of the 'great chain of being' and their overwhelming obsession with cataloguing and classifying animals, plants, people, and pretty much everything under the sun, art in the broader sense serves a much more important purpose. In the laneways of Melbourne city, the bricks and mortar of city high rises have become a canvas upon which culture and art are constantly being created, destroyed, reborn, and recast. The idea of 'art' as being something static that can be hung in a gallery and preserved (entombed) for future generations is overturned by a dynamic movement of artists who take societal and cultural norms and turn them upside down, effectively engaging viewers in a visual dialogue about their own culture, rewriting culture as they do so. When the first art was painted onto cave walls at places such as Lascaux, in France, and Kakadu, in Australia, it is unlikely that the artists were attempting to gain fame or immortality by means of placing a mark on the landscape. It is much more likely that their works of art held a deeper significance, providing a tangible spiritual connection between humankind and the landscape, both physical and metaphysical. In the case of at least some Indigenous Australian societies, art work was tied to rituals that were associated with the seasons, the ancestors, and their place within the cosmos. How does all of this relate to the urban art of inner city Melbourne? The graffiti that is characteristic of the inner city is the modern day equivalent of prehistoric rock art – it is one of the means by which modern humans enter and interact with the landscape, and in at least some instances, are transformed by it. One wall in Hosier Lane, plastered with letters that one can only assume are to people no longer with us, provides a modern analogue of the sacred boundary between this life and the afterlife, a crossing point through which some form of communication with the dead transcends the boundary between the material and the spiritual. Not all modern urban art is necessarily underpinned by such meaning – some appears merely as a celebration of colour, texture, line, form, and fabric, which surely is indicative of our culture. The feature that defines this form of art and separates it from 'high cultured' misconceptions of art is the fact that this art belongs to everyone and it is completely transitory.