A Philosophical Approach to Street Art

March 11, 2015
The Crevasse by Edgar Müller

The philosophy of street art is an area of study as new and surprising as a chalk mural that suddenly appears on a sidewalk or building. Two Wellesley students helped shape this emerging discourse last weekend at the first conference on the subject, The Philosophy of Street Art: Art in and of the Street.

Angela Sun ’17 and Ali Lanier ’15 were the only undergraduates to present a paper at the three-day event, held at the Pratt Institute and New York University. The conference featured scholars from around the United States and a keynote speaker from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

“Philosophy has a tremendous amount to contribute to questions concerning art,” says Erich Hatala Matthes, assistant professor of philosophy, who helped Sun and Lanier develop their ideas from papers they’d written about preserving art in his Philosophy of Art course last spring.

“Works of street art are compelling because they tend to just pop up in unexpected but everyday places, which gives them a sort of democratic element,” he explains. “They seem to ‘belong’ to everyone (and could be created by anyone), in contrast with the sometimes elitist or rarified world of institutional art spaces.”

The students began their talk, “Saving the Writing on the Wall: Two models for street art and its preservation,” with a question many people ask after seeing beautiful street art: Should we preserve it?

Their answer, informed by established literature on restoration, considered street art as performance that is intended to be ephemeral (even though some residue remains) and as ruins that have an enduring physicality shaped by the vagaries of the street. While each model demands a different approach to restoration, both emphasize a commitment to preserving a kind of process that should take precedence over preserving a particular state of the work.

Sun and Lanier demonstrated how those concepts relate to the street art of Banksy and Edgar Müller. Their presentation ended with an innovative new designation Matthes had suggested they consider: street art as performance-ruins.

Conference attendees raved about the students’ new model and its implications for understanding the unique tensions present in an art form that is of-the-moment yet quickly becomes an everyday fixture of the urban landscape. For Matthes, the feedback reinforced an idea he and other Wellesley instructors emphasize about philosophy: “That the goal in our courses is not to have students write about philosophy but to do philosophy and realize that they can all be participants in professional conversations. This [conference] is just one example of what that looks like.”

Sun, an architecture and philosophy major, echoed that perspective after a Q&A session following their presentation. “Ali and I were both nervous to present our work to a group of philosophers, but finding that I could answer the tough questions helped me see my abilities in a new light,” she says. “This experience has also taught me that there are so many areas in which philosophical work has yet to be done. I'm grateful to be at a place like Wellesley that embraces that fact.”