10.08am - American Graffiti

Trip Start Apr 01, 2011
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Where I stayed
Pousada Zilah Sao Paulo
Read my review - 5/5 stars

Flag of Brazil  , Sao Paulo,
Thursday, April 7, 2011

Thursday 7 April, 10.08am, the courtyard

There is an endless debate being held by councils across the globe. Graffiti: is it vandalism, or is it art? On one end of the scale, you have basic tags – some enterprising young idiot with a can of spray paint and the ability to scribble his name. At the other end, men and women who have been hailed as true street artists. The most famous is probably Banksy, the Academy-Award-nominated Bristolian whose works have sold for up to £102,000, but he's far from the only artist who has chosen to paint publically, rather than privately. I watched a documentary series a couple of years ago presented by Julian Beever, a pavement artist who travelled to various cities around the world to create one of his amazing signature 3D chalk drawings, and at the same time, take in some of the street art going on there. He travelled round Europe and the US, but never made it to Brazil. I think he would have liked it here, though, because São Paulo is covered in the most amazing graffiti. It’s the first thing that struck me on my journey in from the airport. Brazil’s largest city is actually famous for these colourful displays – perhaps they’re an analogue to the feathers and sparkles found at Rio’s Carnaval.

Of course, even here, with the high skill level, there’s still the usual scrawl, but there’s so much more impressive stuff jostling for space alongside that you can overlook them. A pair of Paulistano artists, twin brothers Gustavo and Otavio Pandolfo, were even invited by the Tate to paint a mural on the side of the museum. Does that officially make it art, then? Even as they were in London, their work in São Paulo was under threat by the mayor’s Clean City law.

The writer and art critic Gelett Burgess said, "I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like." I think that’s true of most people. We may not be able to appreciate the subtle nuances that an expert finds, but we can all look at a piece of work, whatever it may be, and have it speak to us. The problem with street art – and I am excluding quick tagging, as that has a different purpose to paintings – is that you are asking people not trained in art to appreciate it in a foreign context. Put those same paintings on canvas, in a gallery, and people will flock to see them, because society has dictated to them that this is what art is. Something on display for the public, which the artist has been paid money for – it must be worth seeing, mustn’t it? And people will not wonder about what really speaks to them, they won’t try and find the one piece in the whole place that makes them stop in their tracks and stare. They will just nod thoughtfully, trying to give the impression that they understand why this is noteworthy and something else is not. If you want to know where they keep La Joconde at the Louvre, just follow the crowd. Plenty of people pay the admission to see her and her alone, and then they leave, completely ignoring the fact that there are literally thousands of other priceless artworks all around. They just want to say they saw the Mona Lisa.

When I went to the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, I saw Walk In The Twilight, by Vincent Van Gogh. I’ve never seen a Van Gogh original before, and I find his work compelling (I could look at Starry Night Over The Rhone all day), but I’d never seen this one before. It was one of the most interesting things I’ve seen for a long time. Van Gogh is rightly recognised as a wonderful artist, and his works sell for tens of millions for a reason. I also gazed at one of Monet’s works, Japanese Bridge And Water Lilies, for what seemed like seconds but was probably closer to five or ten minutes. But looking at other paintings in the gallery – works by renowned artists like Manet and Matisse – I found they left me slightly cold. I just couldn’t summon up much interest in portraits of the aristocracy. The detail work on Renoir’s backgrounds or clothing are fantastic, but the faces of his subjects just don’t excite me.

Now, there are plenty of art critics who would tell me my taste is appalling and that I am decidedly wrong in my opinion here, but that’s my point. I don’t know anything about art. I just know what I like. And whilst some of what I like is hanging in the National Gallery, or MOMA, or the Museé d’Orsay, that’s not everything I like. It turns out, I like walking around São Paulo and seeing the graffiti. I like bright colours and interesting ideas and social commentary. I like seeing a little wry humour brought to a world of stuffiness and silence and leave-your-bag-at-the-front-desk.

I suppose what it really comes down to in the end is that all artists believe in their work, and if achievement was measured by passion, there’s no question that all painters, sculptors, directors, photographers and even writers who have tried to make their work public would be hailed as part of a cadre of geniuses. The only question is if you have the talent to back it up. Is your work ever going to mean anything to anyone? I hope mine does one day.

There’s a great Banksy mural, depicting a street cleaner washing graffiti off a wall. The graffiti in question? The Lascaux cave paintings.

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Comments

dini123 on

Cats.

Lou on

Susan Atherton, you lived in London for ages, and you never bothered to go to the national gallery? They have plenty by Van Gogh in there. It is also an amazing building, who doesn’t like a good ceiling?

I can safely say I do not really get graffiti. I don’t think it should be up to an individual to decide what looks good in such a public place, I think streets should have cohesion and you do not get that with so many different ideas vying for your attention. But that is just me.

Lou on

Also - Racoons!

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