Art-icles of war

Photo: Ivan Radic. Wikimedia Commons
Artivism – The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism
Alexander Adams, Societas – Imprint Academic, pp 215, £14.95
GUY WALKER welcomes a spirited sortie onto the cultural battlefield

One function of placing fine paintings in ornate gold frames or sculptures on marble plinths is to demonstrate the special status accorded to fine art in human affairs. These objects earn this status by virtue of their ability to furnish us with some of the most sophisticated pleasures in the hierarchy of human pleasure. The treatment of the pulling down of statues from their plinths to serve baser ends (rather than for reasons of historical guilt) is, therefore, a cultural matter. As a result, it is in no way demeaning to say that the latest book by artist and art critic, Alexander Adams, fires an impressive salvo in what have become known as ‘Culture Wars’.

‘Artivism’ is the pressing of art and resources for art into the grubbier service of political protest and campaigning. It is also the displacement of fine art by what is no more than political activism. This is antithetical to the uplifting precepts of Emmanuel Kant, whose ‘Categorical Imperative’ made human beings ends in themselves in his ‘Kingdom of Ends’, never to be used as mere means to ends. The ability to produce representative art is a pleasure-giving end of this kind, one which appeals to deep human needs rather than shallow political outlooks. The greatest artists of the past understood this intuitively, and underwent long technical apprenticeships in order to fulfil this role properly.

Adams’ survey of the phenomenon and origins of artivism is comprehensive in its breadth. Although the book begins with the Athenian Parthenon and references Leonardo and Michelangelo, he finds the real philosophical origins of it in the rational Enlightenment begun by Bacon and Descartes. Their mathematical and “scientific method….encouraged the collection of data”. This led directly to Jeremy Bentham’s anti-Kantian, utilitarian approach which emphasised the best mathematically calculated ‘outcomes’ for the largest number above all things; there are echoes here of the impersonal big data approach and equality by outcome or ‘equity’ that plague modernity. Adams underscores an essentially conservative allegiance later, in his conclusion, by writing “….every institution established ( or substantially reshaped) according to Enlightenment liberalism has fallen to progressive subversion.”

Rather than Kant, Adams uses other big guns to underpin his art-for-art’s sake, pro-formalism, pro-connoisseurship, pro-objectivity and pro-canon thesis – first, Benedetto Croce,
“[Art] has its own object, the Beautiful, that stands independently on equal terms with the other three (Logic, Economics and Morality). […] true poetry must have no utilitarian, moral, or philosophical agenda.”

Equally weighty support comes from George Orwell:
“…many writers about 1939 were discovering that you cannot really sacrifice your intellectual integrity for the sake of a political creed – or at least you cannot do so and remain a writer.”

Goya’s images of war might be “if not a cry for passivism, a call for pity and restraint”, but they only survived to be in the canon (if one remains) in the twenty-first century by placing artistic execution above political executions that could have been recorded by a plethora of lesser artists.

The author studies the aetiology of the disease of ‘cultural entryism’ that demotes fine art and promotes activism, that has colonised our public museums. This occurred in stages. First was the movement, demanded by Enlightenment universalist and utilitarian principles, from private, monastery or university-owned art collections to public libraries, galleries and museums: “The modern state encroached on the functions of monarchy, aristocracy and church, so noblesse oblige was replaced by the duty of an enlightened bourgeoisie, industrialists and landed gentry.”

This inevitably led to a symbiotic relationship between corporate business and the state, incarnated in bodies such as the Arts Council of England (ACE) and the American National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the emergence of a variously located ‘managerial elite’ whose progressive, Whiggish ideas involve a desire for “..homogenisation, globalisation, technocracy, atomisation and planned economies…”. To these can be added a desire for increased immigration and anti-capitalism. Once in control this elite effected a “territory grab of resources earmarked for art without any consideration for the wishes of the public…” and it is these resources that are used to commission and fund artivism.

Having explored this historical pathology and its philosophical origins, Adams unpicks economic and psychological strands. The funding of artivism by public bodies and corporations has created an underclass of artistically emasculated ‘artists’ subject to “no aesthetic competency threshold” and reduced to a kind of dependent serfdom. Some are real artists reduced to penury and dependency, others have no talent at all. Adams encourages pity for these latter“…a generation of non-artists (produced by universities) doomed to redundancy, deliberately left unskilled, chockful of abstruse theory and puffed up with self-regard, for whom the art world (and wider society) has no use whatsoever. Where else could these graduates have gravitated to except artivist quasi-social work?”

In the face of this, a return of old-style patronage of artists by wealthy patrons which guaranteed that only the excellent survived and thrived while the untalented withered from the field, might be welcomed, to put this deluded underclass out of the misery of its unrealistic artistic aspirations. It might also remove a “client class” of minorities cynically and exploitatively created by “…corporations wishing to improve their images, pressure groups wishing to make an impact, charities needing to disburse sums periodically and state agencies with annual budgets to be allocated.”

Psychologically, Adams detects a vengeful totalitarian predilection within the ‘managerial elite’ who run the arts show. In a further echo of a modernity where the BBC uses our licence fees to admonish and sermonise us on our lack of virtue, this elite uses tax pounds and dollars extracted from the populace to remind them how despicable they are. This is one of the abounding ironies and paradoxes Adams indicates. He also shows how potentially dangerous activist renegades are tamed by the “ruling class” to the extent that they become establishment “foot soldiers” – and how foreign artivist migration advocates are often in conflict with the wishes of the local populations they visit. The managerial elite use the tactic of making us pay for our own humiliation as a “power play” intended to reinforce and signal the subjugation of the populace, the desire for which may derive from the “Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy)”. It’s that sombre and that pathological for Adams. As in much climate activism, a profound anti-humanism is in play, as well as a depersonalisation where ‘collectives’ refers to persons as ‘bodies’ and ‘voices.’

This is an excellent publication doing fine work in identifying, naming and recording a phenomenon which Adams describes as “a predatory pike released into a carp pool” and “an invasive species”. If I have any quibbles, they are as follows.

He makes it clear in the body of the book that real “artistic merit” and “artistic endeavour” must trump everything in the art world and complains, for example, that “Feminists state that all art must be political because there is no division between art and politics.” Orwell and Croce seem to back this up. However, the beginning of the book is a little confusing on this point. He writes, “Drawing lines between art, artivism and political action is not always possible. This ambiguity (and precedents set up by art of older eras) allows overt political action cloaked as artivism to enter the area we set aside for public arts, allowing artivism to assume the status and resources of art.”

He illustrates this ambiguity with examples of artistic resources being used in the creation of the “political statement” of the Parthenon and the lending of their talents by Leonardo and Michelangelo to the political projects of their patrons. He also cites the socialist content of Millais’ and Courbet’s work. A writer and critic of Adams’ undoubted firepower should be able to make the fine but real distinctions between the passing contemporary content and the brilliant artistic execution that makes it survive amongst a welter of similar material or between artivism – and also between an artist lending his talent in return for remuneration to projects that aren’t his, and prototype artivism. He seems to make exactly this distinction in the rest of the book.

He raises a very interesting idea early on:

There is more than a touch of the religious rite about artivism. The activist- shaman-priestess prescribes the place and time of communion, her assistants prepare the space and provide necessary materials. The tribe gathers to attend the publicly announced rite, respectfully assisting by witnessing and participating as directed.

My regret is that he didn’t pursue this line later in the book. He writes very well, but there is a strange stylistic tic whereby he frequently omits the definite article as in “…but it is worth bearing in mind that progressive artivism of today is complementary to….” This sometimes gives a clunkiness to the prose.

Stuckist demonstration. Photo: WIkimedia Commons

But excellences by far outweigh the quibbles. I could add to the former a welcome practical prescription for resisting artivism in the chapter of that name, under the headings of “1, Ethics, 2. Exclusion, 3. Defunding, 4. Reduction, 5. Education, 6. Enforcement”, and the pages devoted to the true dissidents known as the ‘Stuckists’ after Tracy Emin’s derogatory term. I also enjoyed the pace-changing of the entertaining and colourful insertion of Case Studies between chapters, especially the swingeing take-down of Banksy.

The book ends on a pessimistic note. Adams feels our arts establishment has an “inherent foundational flaw” deriving from its roots in the Enlightenment’s rationalism. He suggests, root and branch: “…maybe it would be better to lose trust in that system.” One senses, perhaps, a longing for the more Darwinian days of the Renaissance.

Is London street art dying?

Image: Frank K. Molloy
DAVID UPTON tries his hand at making his mark

Everyone knows about Banksy, who came to fame around 2000 for his cheeky anarchic spray paintings and stencils on walls in Bristol, and later all over the world.

His real name is still officially secret, though by now his works sell in the major art auction houses, and walls are removed so his paintings can be sold (see But it’s over twenty years since Banksy started, and the street art scene has changed completely. You don’t discover Banksy paintings any more: or if you do, somebody else has found them first and they soon disappear.

What we see these days, despite the continuing mists of spray paint propelled by greenhouse aerosol gases on to London’s walls, is mostly mediocrity, angling to sell itself through traditional art markets for the highest prices. Even the anti-establishment rebellion and lawbreaking has gone: artists today use spaces where graffiti are tolerated, sign their names, and sell clothing brands.

Banksy himself sets high standards of professionalism:

All artists are prepared to suffer for their work, but why are so few prepared to learn to draw?

Banksy, p.10

Banksy also has really original artistic ideas, that make you laugh and understand even when you had a different viewpoint to start with. Someone who can do that is rare. He broke with the traditional art market, sold prints his own way, and refused to go after the highest possible prices. For example, during a residency in New York he set up a stall selling real Banksy prints at $60, a fraction of their ‘retail value’ – only seven were bought.

It’s not like that any more.

Of course in any art movement there will only ever be one or two stars, followed by a lot of lesser figures, some drawn in by the hope of quick profit. Anyone these days can go out and paint a wall, and the rest of us have to walk by it until someone else paints it over.

Part of the problem is the confusion between graffiti and street art. In a serious legal study of the copyright issues involved, E. Bonadio says:

…what distinguishes graffiti writing from the broader concept of street art [is that] … by placing tags (as well as other letters-based pieces difficult to read to the everyday public) on walls and other surfaces, graffiti writers aim at speaking just to other taggers or crews, while street artists want to address a larger audience

E. Bonadio, p.8, footnote 60

Simple ‘tagging’ makes up most of the graffiti we see. It’s easy, a sort of logo meaningless except to insiders, rather like dogs peeing on lamp posts. Police operations, such as ‘Misfit’ in London and ‘Anderson’ in Bristol, and increased security measures in target areas such as London Underground, have cut down the amount of visible graffiti. Prison sentences were real: for example ‘Tox’ was sentenced in 2011 to 26 months imprisonment after allegedly causing over £200,000 worth of damage. 

Street artist Ben Flynn, aka Eino, says that these convictions have driven out serious art in favour of quick-and-dirty graffiti:

We would spend days drawing what we were going to paint that weekend. When I wrote graffiti, I knew I would have maybe an hour or an hour and a half to paint. Now, there is less time to do something nice. They have only five or ten minutes, so they are not going to spend their time in their bedrooms developing intricate graffiti. So graffiti has evolved into something that is less easy on the eye

Evening Standard

Even the more elaborate, larger, geometrical tag patterns, colourful though they sometimes are, tend to be stylised and repetitive. They may brighten up a dull corner but they don’t say anything to most of us, though this sort of design can be traced back to Jean Dubuffet in the 1960s.

A few might be described as ‘art’, though only a few I’ve seen recently seem to me to be witty and cheeky:

I saw some quite well drawn heads recently, for example:

This is a painterly achievement, and the drapes are amazing, considering they were done with an aerosol can, but it still reminds me of Tretchikov’s ‘Chinese girl’, which the Independent once described as the Mona Lisa of kitsch (Independent, 17 March 2013).

Sites such as the Stockwell Pen, or Leake Street near Waterloo, are provided by official or corporate bodies in the hope that they will confine or ‘pen’ graffiti to a small area (this has not worked in Stockwell!) or that they will provide nurseries for future Banksys, as John Nation’s site in Bristol is said to have nurtured Banksy. Street art is officially permitted there. London has incorporated them into its tourist trade.

The images above  are in the Stockwell Pen ‘approved’ area,  and in effect signed: you can quickly find the web sites of the two artists (Cat in bath: Large face Mono is Spanish and living in London; his site shows a lot of advertising and commissioned/ advertising work, and advertises his own clothing line. Woskerski’s site advertises prints of his works, selling at £70, and a full scale canvas selling at £1,400. These wall paintings give the artists, literally, ‘street cred’. It’s not that prospective clients come down to Stockwell to see them: it’s enough that these paintings are shown photographed ‘in situ’ on their web sites, and on social media such as Instagram. If they were painted over tomorrow, it would not matter once they are on social media.

The tourist industry boasts

London has one of the biggest and best collections of uncommissioned street art in the world. Local and international artists have decorated the streets of London with a staggering array of creative works, from miniature bronze statues to painted murals several storeys high

Visit London website

Websites advertise street art areas, guide books mention them. You can go on escorted tours, just as you can do tours of the Jack the Ripper murder sites. There are agencies that claim to help you find a street artist and commission work ( or to “offer a consulting service to both individuals and corporations to acquire and expand their art collections” ( There are galleries specialising in ‘street art’, conveniently transferred to prints you can take home. (See for example in Hoxton, or in the Portobello Road.)

But much of this now is street art with its heart ripped out. It’s people building a career as an artist/ designer, aping the style of the streets and painting in ‘permitted’ graffiti areas as a way of building credibility. It’s a thousand miles away from the furtive, athletic life of the original taggers, as shown in Crack and Shine videos (eg, ) It merges imperceptibly into advertising, it doesn’t say anything about the world, except ‘buy my clothing brand’. It just has a (dishonestly) more ‘raw’ or ‘edgy’ feel than if you said ‘here is an artist who mostly does prints in a studio’.

Graffiti artists have also specialised in painting out of the way places, which are often dangerous. As Banksy says:

People look at an oil painting and admire the use of brushstrokes to convey meaning. People look at a graffiti painting and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access

Banksy, p. 237

At least one artist has died as the result of a fall, though apparently not whilst painting (see No-one wants artists to be at risk, but it’s annoying when they dishonestly imply that they are. Any street art is at its best when it relates to its context, and places like the Stockwell Pen are too bland, too half-heartedly municipal, to be a context for anything.

Some new ideas have come up, but often you can see from the internet how they have died out. Guerilla knitting, for example – covering street furniture with knitted cosies – had a vogue around 2005-2010. The web sites are still there, but haven’t had anything new added for ten years (see

However, if you look around Brick Lane, which as far as I know is not officially a permitted graffiti area, there are some signs of new ideas.

Small sculptures are now appearing, glued high up walls where they can’t easily be reached. (Broken vegetables in the next image are where people have tried to help themselves to a free art work.)

The orange balloon in the next image is a 3D object, made and signed by Tripsandpieces ( )

Other new ideas involve what used to be called ‘stickers’. Stickers were an easy equivalent of tagging with simple graffiti. You made a few copies of a design on pre-glued pages and stuck them on lamp-posts or doors. Often, like ‘tagging’, this was just an in-group communication. However, the sticker scene has grown up and there are currently some very interesting works in the Brick Lane area. Typical walls and doorways are crowded with overlapping stickers or mini-posters, some of them political, some satirical, some just weird. The process is known as ‘paste up’, or ‘wheat-pasting’ from the flour based glue used to do it. (See )

Of course, fly-posting goes back a long way. But fly-posting art for art’s sake does not. The result, similar to the leap graffiti ‘tagging’ took to become street art, is richer and more interesting walls.

Images can be larger and in different styles. Artists can take their time. Brick Lane currently houses  several paste-ups done in bold spray paint on old newspapers, for example, by ‘LT66’ –  . (LT66’s images can also be bought framed from . I liked them so much I’ve just bought one myself.) The use of newspaper reminds me of ‘arte povera’, and the style is bold but lyrical. And LT66 isn’t just in it for the money – his site says “Looking to exchange Paste ups DM me I can paste yours up around Brick Lane in exchange for mine going up in new areas”.

Some images use QR codes, which open up a whole area for interaction, but sadly many of these are blurred or damaged and wouldn’t read properly on my phone. So as an example, here is one I put up myself, in Centaur Street, Lambeth, near some mosaics about William Blake’s work.

Use the barcode reader on your phone; this will take you to an experimental animated page on my website. The animation uses .css, which gives a limited range of possibilities. However, it springs into life once you hit the web page, whereas if you use a video (for example) you need to authorise it separately to run, and this spoils any spontaneity.  But you don’t get the augmented reality (AR) effect, of placing the site page in the background you see through your camera.

Insa has made digital, moving works using an AR app, gif-iti, which you download to your phone. (Regolini 2020) When you point your phone camera at one of his works (or at an image of the work) it shows the work as a .gif, in motion. Typical screens involve laboriously painting layers by hand and then photographing each one, rather like drawing a cartoon. This is a great AR technology, but it only works for the few screens contained in the app; each time Insa makes a new work, he’ll have to issue a new app. However it does look good on mobile phones: if anyone ever markets a good AR viewer, this will revolutionise street art.

Another Insa project involves creating identical images at different places and producing a series of coordinated views in one .gif (see But this is not anti-capitalist rebellion: like the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, it was funded by Netflix. It takes in all the spectacular capitalist destinations – Paris, Manhattan, Taipei, like Michael Palin on E. Technically ingenious, but art monetising itself using the traditional market strategies.

Banksy too has taken the big money route. But one of the greatest triumphs of London street art, ironically, is the video of a Banksy art work shredding itself just after it had been sold for over £1 million at Sotheby’s in October 2018. (see ). The wealthy international connoisseur audience is visibly gob-smacked, mouths hang open, people jump to their feet: the anarchic spirit of the streets lives on.

There’s hope yet.

As a personal coda, I felt I could not write about street art until I had tried doing it. I prepared some modest stencils, of an eye and an apple, using three colours. Drawing and cutting out the stencils took an afternoon. Practising with paint on some Amazon cardboard boxes took another hour. As Banksy said, “Mindless vandalism can take a lot of thought” (Banksy p 237)

When I eventually left my studio and got out into the streets, the main lesson I learned is that even a simple stencil takes a lot of time and concentration to manipulate, and to spray properly.

As a result, you WILL NOT NOTICE the police officer coming up behind you.

Image: Frank K. Molloy

References and acknowledgements

Banksy – ‘Wall and Piece’, Century, London 2006.

Bonadio, E, Copyright Protection of Street Art and Graffiti under UK Law (4 April 2017). Intellectual Property Quarterly, Issue 2, 2017 , Available at SSRN:

Evening Standard, 18 July 2011, at

Independent – see


Visit London – official visitor guide’ see