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Street Art vs Fine Art

 Embracing Diversity and Culture

At first glance, few other things seem more opposite than fine art and street art. Fine art sits quietly and patiently in gilded frames on the walls of temperature-controlled secured rooms. There informative blurbs and biographies sit beside each work. They give viewers context about when, where, and how a painting or sculpture was made. Fine artists are written about in history books and revered for the bodies of artwork that live long after they’re gone.

Street art, in contrast, bursts into public spaces with untamed energy and vibrancy. They’re massive in scale and seem to expand beyond the confines of the buildings, walls, and bricks on which they’re created. Like the canvases that line the walls of the National Gallery of Art, graffiti and street art is painted on a surface. They are figurative, abstract, and everything in between, just like the paintings that live mere miles from them. Yet, viewing street art is a radically different experience than exploring fine art in a museum context.

Art techniques are an exciting way to see, understand, and talk about art. They can radically change the perception, context, and meaning of artwork without trying. Oil paint, for example, is an art technique that automatically elevates a work into the fine art sphere. Spontaneous spray paint in a public space becomes graffiti and takes on the narrative and context of street art. Both art techniques are forms of painting, though; both come with the same kinds of color and compositional choices.

We’re sure that you have some notions about fine art and street art. One sounds a bit pretentious and inaccessible, while the other seems a bit rogue and risky. Both forms of artwork are some of the most basic forms of self-expression out there, though, and they have more in common than you’d think. Hear us out.

How Street Art and Fine Art Contrast and Coexist in Washington, D.C.

There’s a relationship between some of the art techniques used in both street art and fine art. The dozens and dozens of multicolored graphic marks that make up the clothing in the mural below, for example, echo back to the millions of dots in George Seurat’s pointillist artworks hanging in the halls of the National Gallery of Art. Museums are amazing, but let’s be real. They explore a  relatively limited number of narratives in history. Research shows that 85% of artists in U.S. museum collections are white, and 87% are male. Neither of those numbers detracts from the beauty, skill, and culture that permeates the nation’s artworks. It just means that there are thousands of other stories to tell, experiences to witness, and historical moments to learn from. Street art allows for diversity and inclusivity in the narratives that are portrayed in art. Prince and Michelle Obama, for example, are two of the most formative and influential figures of the 20th and 21st centuries (and we are some of their biggest fans).

It’s true. The Street Artwork Reflects Society

Regardless of whether the work of art is utterly abstracted or hyperrealistic, it’s still a snapshot of the community and culture from which it was made. In many ways, street art is the world’s museum, and we all have the privilege of seeing artworks crop up and react to life in real-time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, graffiti and street artists have created moving and impactful
images and messages about our first responders. Street art expresses what people feel and believe in our current cultural moment as it occurs, and it is enthralling to see.

Street art also takes on religious and sacred artwork in its own (very cool) way. For hundreds of years, the art world was deeply religious. Sacred art, ripe with biblical themes and figures, was the only kind of creative pursuit allowed in life. Our use and understanding of art have thankfully, expanded quite a bit. Yet, street art is also an avenue for engaging in a conversation about religion and expressing faith hundreds and thousands of years after religious art sprang into existence.

A church covered in graffiti and street art transforms a place of worship into something that goes beyond a painting or a piece of architecture: it’s a reflection of our shared culture, full of joy and energy. It lives and breathes along with the city’s inhabitants. It has as many religious themes and connotations as any work of fine art from the 17th century.

There’s Nothing Too Precious About Street Art

And, what a liberating experience for artists and viewers alike. This is perhaps one of the only fundamental differences between street art and fine art. Street art injects art directly into the public sphere. It endures all kinds of weather, human interaction, and daily activity, yet it continues to stand firm and unscathed. Have you ever run your hand across some painted bricks or marveled at the sheer scale and the countless hours that went into a street art mural? It’s the best feeling. Whether it’s graffiti or oil paint, both fine art and street art infuse the act of painting with dignity, human experience, and culture. These art techniques have more in common than we give them credit for; they allow us to learn about the state of our world and enjoy the endless capacity of human creativity.