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Redefining Cultural Heritage: Street Art as Cultural Testimony

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During the last decade, street art has emerged as the latest trend in the artistic world and has soon become a controversial issue of discussion for anyone involved in the cultural dialogue.

The impetus with which it has sprung, alongside with the element of illegality that it usually involves, have provoked a torrent of reactions and have given rise to numerous legal or semi-legal questions, in an effort to delimit the phenomenon.

As an art form, street art has emerged through graffiti, the stylized letter composition also known as tagging, which flourished in the 1960’s Philadelphia. The contemporary phenomenon of graffiti, whose original form can be found in pre-historic cave paintings amongst the world, goes beyond the mere action of writing one’s pseudonym on the walls of the block. Often associated with gang related practices of marking territory or linked to the raise of the hip hop culture that flourished during the same time, graffiti has a long and disputable history, far more complex and socially interesting than the one it is usually attributed.

After the graffiti boom of 1980 in N. York however, different artworks begin to appear; artworks created outside the concept of street culture and not limited to artistically elaborate lettering. The shift from text-based works to visually conceptual ones marks the appearance of a new term as well. Despite the countless discussions on the topic, the definition of the term “street art” remains a challenging venture and seems to be fashioned in dependence to the views and objectives of each commentator, thus creating additional disputes. It is usually dissociated from the terms “graffiti”, “post-graffiti” or “neo-graffiti” due to the negatively charged character that the word “graffiti” bears as explained above, as is from “public art”, which in the mind of the many relates to state initiatives or commissioned projects.

wallsoffreedomWhat becomes evident to anyone researching this artistic movement is that the respective local community develops a significant level of involvement with the street art that features its walls. The reactions may vary from rejection of street creations to appraisal and incorporation in the tradition and historic course of the place. One of the most evident examples of the said attitude is the events related to Banksy’s artwork Slave Labour that in 2013 was removed from its place and sold at an auction. In this case, the local community was largely activated; it protested and fought against the removal of the artwork thus, claiming the rights it held upon the piece “that was given to it by the artist” and beautified the neighborhood since.

In this context of admitting the importance of street art for communities and cities, there are researchers to support the view of street artworks being recognized as cultural heritage and protected as such. Cultural heritage in general entails any source and evidence of human culture and history or namely any tangible and intangible property worthy of preservation. While in any international convention on relative matters a different definition of the term is provided, what remains a common ground is the significance such property presents to comprehending and safeguarding human history.

Under this framework, street art could qualify as newer cultural heritage, according to the view of the writer. Its aesthetic value is now widely appraised with new levels of artistic interest being reached due to the new 3d street art that emerges. At the same time, its historic value cannot be denied; street art narrates the story of the city and its very existence is a sign of urban development and an action of renegotiating public space. For what is more, the majority of street artworks have a contemporary character, since they make reference to current social, economic and political developments on an international basis. Hence, street art becomes of great interest for anyone researching the history and trajectory of a city or a community and, as a carrier of multiple and multileveled messages, it seems to slowly acquire the merits of cultural heritage.

A characteristic example used to demonstrate this role that street art can acquire is the Berlin Wall, a monument of great significance for the history of the world. Along its walls, are featured numerous street artworks-homages to the events and victims of this troubled period of time. In 2013, a developer was granted permission by the State Monuments Office and the Supreme Heritage Authority to remove parts from the East Side of the Wall, for reasons of urban development. The result was a grand protest against the destruction of the wall and the exaltation off its historic and cultural value. More importantly, it led protesters to call on UNESCO to protect the site and grant it World Heritage status. It is the first time that UNESCO will consider the issue of street art qualifying as cultural heritage and its decision may very well determine the future of street art.

However, as it has been evident worldwide, including the USA, states tend to focus their cultural heritage related interest towards the past, developing a relation of totem and worship with ancient artifactsand a more relaxed and indifferent one concerning modern creations. What is more, there are practical difficulties in attributing the merits of cultural heritage to street artworks, difficulties that vary from the issue of who would apply for the said recognition to what criteria would be invoked to decide relevantly. These matters are perplexed enough without inserting the complex status of ownership in the equation, the obstacles of illegality and the conflicting relative opinions that street art arises.

One should bear in mind though that, in contrast to current governmental policy, cultural heritage is a fluid concept that evolves and changes according to the growth and advancement of civilization. It is a mistake to confine it and obstruct its conformation to the needs of contemporary culture. With a more open-minded approach towards cultural heritage and a socially based interpretation of the need to preserve it, street art would have found an umbrella of protection and a friendlier regime of confrontation. I feel though, that societies have miles to go before adopting such views.

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Arts & Culture

Alone and Lonely: Through the Gaze of Edward Hooper

Ankit Malhotra

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Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

As I recall the hours I spent in the Museum of Modern Art, I am reminded of the masterful work of Edward Hopper. Hopper, an American artist, was known for his enigmatic and melancholic paintings of urban life in America. He perfected the art of loneliness in his paintings and a representation of individuals absorbed by solitude. His paintings depict solitary figures staring into the abyss. The words of my former partner ring in my ears till this day. She felt the figures were recognition of the fleeting moments of loneliness that exist in all of us, whether we are amid a pandemic, economic recession or just in an ordinary day.

Hopper’s famous work, Nighthawks (1942), continues to be referred to and revered in today’s day and age. The painting portrays alienation and voyeurism quiet contemplation the scene depicts four people

in a New York City diner at night it’s meant to be somewhere in Greenwich Village where Hopper lived. There are one waiter and three patrons whose relationships are all ambiguous. Seated closely in an empty diner at dusk, it is assumed that these two knew each other. Somehow, their hands overlap yet don’t touch. Suggesting they’re in different phases and could be strangers if not just momentarily estranged. Prima facie, one looks at the dinner from an odd angle. From the vantage of an onlooker crossing the street. The triangular corner juts into the frame like the prow of a boat.

This is no coincidence. Not only was Hopper obsessed with the imagery of boats but he repeatedly situated his buildings’ angles like so. For Hopper, his subjects were both, behind and in front of windows. Of course, windows are the place where the separation between outside and inside becomes complicated. Not because we can physically move through them but because our sight does. One’s gaze invades these private worlds. Indeed, Hopper’s artistic romance with windows often appears as if windows are non-existent. Hopper’s windows vanish. They invite a voyeuristic look. Aware of the fact that knowing that houses like people can be penetrated with a gaze Hopper was a very slow, very deliberate painter.

Hopper wanted his devotion to each work to be mirrored by our appreciation as slowly and deliberately as he painted. He wanted his viewers to look at the vulnerable crouching in the dark in the building; Or opposite or simply crossing the street. Note, there is no door to the diner in Nighthawks. No way in except by way of sight. A sight that enters the fluorescent light of the establishment passes through the three patrons in their ennui and loneliness and exits into the dark.

In short, Nighthawks exemplifies Hopper’s style of a dramatic play of light, shadow, and a hue of mystery. Tensions and disconnections between people are exemplified in paintings such as Room in New York and Summer Evening. “We are all Edward Hopper paintings now,” I read on the internet. Alluding to the sense of isolation that has permeated societies undergoing lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hopper’s work resonates as the world remains in the shackles of lockdowns, even if partial. Without a shadow of a doubt, such expressions of emotions and feelings like loneliness mirror what so many feel inside due to the ‘new normal.

Nevertheless, Hopper’s work is far beyond the dull and melancholic mood of mundaneness that hangs over our heads. His paintings are a brilliant psychological illustration that speaks to the artist’s experience and thoughts on life. In solitude and social isolation, Hopper’s figures offer a kinship to the viewer, a recognition of the fleeting moments of loneliness that exist in all of us whether we’re amid a pandemic, economic recession or just an ordinary day.

Hopper’s paintings, like the rest of his skilful ilk, demand a story of interpretation. His paintings resemble book covers awaiting analysis, awaiting narratives. In such an amalgam of mystery and openness, Hopper’s paintings exude an exquisite and memorable sentiment. Staring at Hopper’s works, one notices the life in the subjects painted. Hopper’s work, in my analysis, in my narrative, seeks not to compound loneliness, but simply to recognise it.

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Moneyball: Is intuition the one thing that makes sports beautiful?

Naphat Malikul (Prim)

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Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in 'Moneyball' (Photo credit by Columbia Pictures)

Looking from afar, Moneyball looks like a male-centric sport movie that teaches us about how baseball works. But looking more closely, it is a film about business and negotiation, vital skills for someone who wants to be a good team manager. Starring Brad Pitt, the film sticks with tough, middle-aged Billy Beane, a team manager of Oakland A’s. He was recently defeated by the Yankees and found his team short-funded and losing star players to richer teams. Beane tried to find a solution for his team by turning to old, grizzled scouts who used intuition to pick good players, but ended up disappointed by the old-school system. Coincidentally, he met Peter Brand, a Yale graduated statistician who proposed a new way of organising team: to buy win and not players. Brand used statistic to find imperfect players who were underpaid, and by combining imperfections, both lead to team to break records of the decades with much less fund than other teams.

Data is the key factor in Beane and Brand’s success. It is used to predict players’ behaviour and create independent strategic moves that are combined to win the match. As Moneyball is mainly about the power of data in business success, this reminds me of one word that is frequently used these days: ‘big data’. Actually, what Brand used is not really called big data because there are three factors that must be concerned when using this word. The first one is ‘volume’, big data must consists of a large amount of data that makes it impossible for traditional methods to process it. The second is ‘variety’. There are many kinds of data, such as audio, video, text, Facebook posts, etc and this make the organisation of data more complex. The last one is ‘velocity’, means the speed of data generation. It refers to continuous and massive flow of data that happens simultaneously in a very short time. Social medias are one example of big data generation. When millions of people post on their wall all at once, the overflows of data begin and continue endlessly.

One thing about big data that captures my attention is that ‘the importance of big data doesn’t revolve around how much data you have, but what you do with it’ [1] Big data is usually used to spot defects in the process, calculate risks in business plans, and identify potential selling (or in baseball, scoring) points. Beane and Brand used their statistical data, which is administered in traditional ways, to accomplish modern tasks that all statisticians dreamt to succeed in. The predated methods of Beane and Brand paved the way for other major league teams in bringing statistic in use and changed the way baseball works forever. This makes me think of one scenario: ‘what if all the baseball records are fed to AI to create an absolutely winning team?’. The answer is more thrilling than I expected.

In the old days, scouts used intuition to pick good players. Their guts told them that some players were more talented than others and endless possibilities pop up in their imagination. ‘Possibility’ is a very powerful word because it comes with free will: the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded [2]. The scout knew they can choose players and design their game freely with their experienced minds and each player was free to act in the field to create a winning or losing game. Well, they could somehow predict the results but there was a significant space for unpredictable factors, and these unpredictable factors are vital for human conditions: we don’t want to be like robots of which all the moves can be predicted. We want to be more than gears in a close-system machine. We want to be able to ‘choose’.

It seems like the ability to choose is erased in the scenario I mentioned above. If one day AI learns how to predict absolute results of all games, that might be the end of baseball (and maybe all other sports). All the beautiful things about expectation will be gone. How can we be excited if there is nothing to expect? There will be no cheering and bets if we all know the prediction will be 100% correct. Gifts and hard works will only be reduced to numbers in sheets.

It’s true that the movie highly valued statistic and this robotic method but in the end, Beane found himself losing in major leagues. This means calculation is not always correct, but can we comfort ourselves that it was because human abilities are beyond calculations? Or do we must admit that it was because the tools he had were not advanced enough? Intuition might be an old-school tool, but isn’t it because of intuition that we have come this far? There are a lot more questions to be asked and these all will lead to the most important question: ‘what makes human condition meaningful?’

[1] https://www.sas.com/en_th/insights/big-data/what-is-big-data.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will

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The Art, Artist and The Pandemic

Ankit Malhotra

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Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889

Irrespective of how many times one visits, a spontaneous trip to Paris is always a good idea. That is because perennially alluring city of lights never disappoints.

Palatial building houses of centuries gone past us offer a contemporary aesthetic fusion of French sophistication with oriental grandeur. The enchantment of Paris is gilded with rich, jewel-toned shopping arcades, Haute couture-inspired artworks and ornate vases filled with freshly-cut camellias. A mist of tranquillity prevails in the city which stretches from the lush greenery of the glorious gardens. Paris and her pleasures exude a special kind of serenity and tranquillity. While Parisian pleasures cannot be fully roistered, art, which can fill the void of empty walls and souls alike, comes to the rescue. Paris dawns a mystical ensemble of history and art. And, art, despite the world being in a global lockdown has not stopped admirers from drooling over mastery of expression.

Evidence to support my claim and love for the human ingenuity and the love for expression are limitless. Museums and auction houses have retaliated by banding together to ride out the crisis. A plethora of blue-chip biennale like the Art Basel Hong Kong are being virtually conducted with complete oral narration. Eminent auctioneers such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips’ are accepting bids online.

Artists like Spanish painter Silvestre Santiago recently recreated van Gogh’s Starry Night directly on the hood of iconic British marque, the Jaguar. Speaking van Gogh, for whom the world was an imagination painted 150 paintings as an inmate of a mental hospital facility. His madness is depicted in his drawings through broad strokes and brush movements depicting his vision of the world around him. One is tempted to simulate the spectacle which took place in the summer of 1889in the south of France, St. Remis.

His unorthodoxy married his fascination of the night sky. The expression of the turmoil in the artist’s imagination found resonance and familiarity with the night sky.van Gogh’s added a spark to the dead and dull night sky. Unlike his previous works, van Gogh is said to have created ‘The Starry Night’ from memory and imagination rather than mere observation of reality. Critics feel that the 30-inch x 36-inch canvas painted 13 months before its maker’s death held motifs that symbolised his frame of mind, sense of isolation and a search for hope during a period of great distress. They see ‘The Starry Night’ not just as an image bursting with uncontrollable emotional energy, but also of van Gogh’s struggles and insanity at the time of its creation.

It is evident that van Gogh was always enthralled by the mysteries of the night, the dark sky and shining stars provided him with space for meditative reflection and soothing comfort for his mentally disturbed condition. “The moon comes out of eclipse, the stars blaze and heave, and the cypresses move with them, translating the rhythms of the sky into the black writing’s of the flame-like silhouette,” writes art critic Robert Hughes. The remarkable ‘Starry Night’ encapsulates intensely blue and vibrant sky which is excited yet at the same time, agitated. The sky and the stars have radiating concentric rings of light. The moon has the same set of rings around it. They are set in the sky which is not like the sky which one looks up to at night but rather is the vivid depiction of van Gogh’s imagination. The sky has swirling patterns which force the viewer to imagine the circles to move in the most psychedelic fashion possible. “It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly coloured than the day,” he wrote to his brother and confidante, Theo. “When I look at the night sky, I see the mysterious brightness of a pale star in the infinite… then life is almost enchanted after all.”

Art historian and curator Joachim Pissarro writes, “Starry Night has an imaginative force and that the night was a very big catalyst in van Gogh’s mind; van Gogh lived his life by the night. He didn’t sleep until three or four in the morning. He wrote, read, drank, spent nights in cafés…or meditated over the very rich associations that he saw in the night. It was during the night hours that his experiments with imagination and memory went the farthest”. For scholars like Pissarro, The Starry Night stands out as a truly iconic image — an emblem not only of van Gogh’s work but also of art and the mind’s unimaginable creative ingenuity.

Finally, like me in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the chances are you are not standing in front of this painting alone, you are probably surrounded by quite a few people looking at exactly what you are. That, to my mind is the magic of art. I look back fondly and realise that the painting compels one to realize the part of the reason for the paintings’ status as of a‘treasure’ and love from people has to do with van Gogh’s way of touching one’s emotional well-being and vergangenheitbewältigung. Vergangenheitbewältigung, which, from German to English roughly translates to coping with the past. This offers a deeply philosophical and stoical resemblance towards times which bear semblance to the life of van Gogh whose life like ours in such times is marred with ennui.

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