Exactly two weeks ago, the Yale University Art Gallery appeared to have gained a new distinction: a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. That morning, a plaque was affixed to the wall outside the entrance of the museum. It started off: “This plaque marks the spot on which Sam Dilvan used a felt marker to scrawl the minimalist yet emotionally complex tag, ‘Boobz.’”
An April Fools’ joke? Clearly. But the plaque was more than just a simple prank. It was soon claimed as a work by Believe In People, a highly active, anonymous street artist. Yalies may be most familiar with his spray-painted messages of encouragement located on street curbs throughout the city, or his larger murals on the back walls of several downtown buildings.
The emergence of the medium of “street art” is a fascinating and continually evolving aspect of the contemporary art landscape. Unlike simple graffiti, which usually involves the scrawling of initials or rude symbols in alleyways and is done out of youthful recklessness, street art is when an artist intentionally chooses to create his or her artwork on a building within public space.
Street art is just as illegal as graffiti, and it certainly is controversial as to whether or not such works can even be truly classified as “art.” However, it is undeniable that such works, without an owner and in constant danger of alteration or removal, raise crucial questions about the fundamental nature of art itself. They force us to re-examine the space in which we live, introducing a bit of unexpected beauty or contemplation into an otherwise unremarkable street corner and granting all passersby equal access to an encounter with art.
That being said, I was incredibly curious to observe the reaction of the Yale University Art Gallery to this intrusion into its venerated space, the encounter between the well-established and traditional institution and the young, controversial new field. And what I saw has been worrying indeed.
Many have praised the YUAG for its decision not to destroy the plaque and its subsequent recognition of Believe In People’s work as a form of art — and of course I cannot disagree. However, I am concerned by the museum’s conclusion that the best way to allow the piece to serve its intended purpose as a catalyst for contemplation of the relationship between “street art” and traditional art is through display within a traditional museum context.
Exactly what gives street art so much of its power is its nontraditional setting. This artistic movement was founded in direct rejection of the typical practice of museum display, where works of art are housed behind glass in a private, sterile environment, labeled and analyzed by scholars — a place where public entrance is a privilege. By creating their art directly within the public sphere, with no explanation and a limited sense of ownership, street artists give their works directly to the people. This art is not glorified and placed upon a pedestal; it is not separated from us by glass and guards.
This is the intent with which the plaque was created — so that every person walking down Chapel Street would have equal access to the work, and an equal right to experience, interpret, and interact with it as they wished. The meaning of the work itself can be fully appreciated only within this original context. While the YUAG wisely chose not to physically destroy Believe In People’s work, its decision to display it within a museum setting is almost equal in its damage to the work’s meaning.
In a recent statement, the YUAG explained its decision, asserting that “It is in our interest as a teaching museum, steward of art and community institution to return this work to a public venue for further contemplation and appreciation.” This sentiment is admirable — but the YUAG must recognize that while art museums are incredibly valuable institutions, they are still not truly “public venues.” Museums are much more open to the community today than in decades past, and they continue to evolve to become more accessible and better serve as resources for the free education of all. However, many issues do still exist within this institutional form of the preservation and display of art. Thus, a growing number of contemporary artists, such as Believe In People, are intentionally choosing alternate modes of display for their works — which in many ways better convey their intended message.
The original wishes of Believe In People in the display of his work should be respected, as of those of any artist within the YUAG’s collection. In acting otherwise, the YUAG will place itself firmly in the past, stubbornly unwilling to adapt to the constantly developing field which it was created to preserve.
Emma Fallone is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.