Stickers, Wall Pastings and What Counts as Art

What is art?

We won’t solve that question here. Just poke around at some of its meanings. My son, an art major at LaGuardia High School of the Arts, has some very strong opinions, dismissing essentially all contemporary art as garbage. E.g. Rothko’s one color canvases and an untouched, unnamed block of granite in San Francisco, complaining that it takes no effort, no craft to create these. There is nothing artistic about it. He dismisses it as a con because of this. So for him, art is effort and craft.

Fair enough if a bit Strictly Ballroom—>innovative, flashy steps aren’t “Strictly Ballroom” because one can’t teach uniqueness, so everyone needs to stay in line—to oversimplify it. Thus, if a work doesn’t use “strictly studio” craft, nor appear to take enough effort, it’s not art. Regardless of it affecting the viewer. Some might find this cleaving too traditional and thus rejecting works that attack art, that bend the boundaries, or prove points. Fountain by R. Mutt (Duchamp) anyone?

While I appreciate a lot of the ideas behind his opinion, it does seem too strict, and best used for canonical or classical western art as there are vast traditions of art that don’t fit his definition. Works from other cultures, earlier cultures. Even modern primitivism.

Then there is performance art, which is a piece that exists only in and through its performance. Something that is necessarily ephemeral. It might take craft, and enormous effort, but can’t be kept in a museum. Performed there: Yes. Recorded and viewed there: yes. But the performance happens, and then it’s gone. Poof. Nothing like Nike of Samothrace, aka Winged Victory, a favorite of mine, standing for centuries. Art writ beautifully in stone.

Street Art as Performance art

Which brings us to Street Art, which has characteristics of both performance art and what Max would consider real art. There are gorgeous murals that embrace realism, or surrealism, which have all the elements of craft and effort. But, as they are outdoors, they are necessarily ephemeral. If they are easy to get to, they will be tagged and painted over. Even if they are difficult to reach, the weather and pollution will erode them. Futher, they can’t, by nature, be curated in museums. †

But if it goes up on a wall, it probably WON’T end up in a museum, and most of the time, it gets tagged, vandelized, painted over, worn away by weather, torn down when a building gets demolished, ultimately forgotten. It exists while it’s painted or while the pieces get applied to the wall using wheat paste and last only until it is destroyed. It’s ephemeral and to be enjoyed while it lasts.

† Sure, sometimes sections of walls are saved, and Keith Harring and Jean-Michel Basquiat made the leap from street to museum walls, yes. Others have too. But work that is painted or pasted on a street wall is vulnerable and, by nature, short-lived.

Do Stickers count?

Sure they can.
But aren’t they just created in a computer and pushed out of a printer, peel and stick?

As Walter Benjamin talks about in his “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” art has changed from antiquity into modernity. At one time, the only institutions wealthy enough to produce art were the religious. Gods, heroes and myths were the focus of representation. Then the ruling class. Then merchants. Eventually, some representation of the common folk make it in on the periphery, frequently as butts of jokes.

This transformation was repeated by the Church in Europe. In early Christianity, only prophets and Christ were represented, with gold filling in all the space as the presence of god. Rulers elbowed their way in eventually, but depicted physically smaller than Biblical figures. And always depicting biblical scenes, being both attractive and didactic.

Then came the merchants. Merchants started in biblical scenes, but they extricated themselves and then everyday life was dipicted. That of the weathly. History happened. Wealth was redistributed. Average folks wanted art.

Mechanical reproduction makes this possible. Makes works for art cheap. And then the hoi poloi wanted into the frames, to appear in art. And so they found there way in.

Mikhail Bakhtin also observes this movement from the Epic space of heroes to contemporary space of the average, he though applying that change mostly the literature. Religious texts, to heroic tales of kings, to wealthy merchants and finally the average person.

Now, almost any piece of art can be captured and reproduced ad infinitum, on paper, on screens. So, does that render a Mucha poster not art? Or A Beardsly print? What of photographs? Or graphic art? Nothing physical there at all. Is that not art then?

Of course that’s art. It’s just different from classical Greek Red Figure pottery or Hellenistic statues or painting by Rembrandt or van Gough. That something can be reproduced isn’t disqualifying. Nor is the lack of paint or stone. It’s just different.

Granted stickers can be clutter and cheap looking. They fall off and get damaged easily. But none of that precludes them from being art. At least with a lowercase a.

Printed Stickers

These are stickers that are made with the art on them. They are the peel and stick kind. The least fresh, as the creation is long separated from the creation of the original to its display.

Sticker from goofyfroot, featuring Chil Pepper
Sticker from goofyfroot, featuring Chil Pepper

Straight getting the word out. Goofy Froot is letting people know s/he exists, showing off a bit of what they do. For the Freshest Froot, go here.

Sticker featuring the Profile of a Woman by Coccetti
Profile of a Woman’s face by @Coccetti_

Similar to Goofy Froot’s getting things out there, this one though feels less self marketing and more here’s something pretty. Oh, you can find me here. If you want to. Or visit his work at Saatchi Art here.

Sicker of Campbell's Cream of Insulin Soup
Satire of Andy Warhol’s Tomato Soup can paintings

A bit of satire here. Nothing to show off who created it as that’s not what mattered for the creator(s). This is to poke fun. Be clever.

Sticker of a Sliced Blue Egg Creature, falling to the right, a trail of pink blood in its wake.
Falling Sliced Blue Egg Creature

This looks a bit homemade, but the uniformity and crispness of the edges hint that it might be commercial or professional. There is some light writing on it “PCN plasma,” which turned up nothing on Google.

Example of layers of stickers making things cluttered and messy: Yellow Skull with clutter
Yellow Skull in the Midst of Clutter

This sort of mess, the layers of stickers, tags and general visual clutter is part of the reason stickers get a bad rep. It’s ugly, messy and something most people would rather not see, like trash blowing down the street. This skull, right cheekbone chipped off, though adds pop. It stands out and adds a modicum of order on this otherwise chaotic jumble to colors and shapes. It’s a focal point, which will covered up or torn away soon. As is the fate of most ephemera.

Sicker from Record Label In Effect Hard Core: Granny with a machine gun
In Effect HardCore Granny

Generally, I don’t collect nakedly commercial stickers, but a granny blasting away with a tommy gun. Hard to resist, especially with the Hatfields and McCoy edge: dress and cardigan over DMs. Just FUN. From the from the fanzine turned website In Effect HardCore.

Modified Labels

This is a hybrid form of art. Take a pre-printed sticker and add to it. More original, perhaps, than printed labels (see the cat below for more on that), some primitive, some sophisticated.

One-eyed monster inked on a Priority Mail label
One Eyed Green Priority Mail Monster

Free stickers at the post office make their appearance a lot in NYC. This is a quick one, that seems to be someone’s signature drawing. Simple: a few lines, cleanly executed. Took practice to get that skill down.

Using free stickers for art: Cat in a suit on a Priority Mail Label
Cat in a Suit on a Priority Mail Label

This one could be free hand, or it could be printed on the label. Hard to tell. But the art is slick. Something my son can appreciate—takes craft and time, though whether it’s unique to this sticker or one of many is hard to tell. Still nice to look at.

Home Grown Stickers

These are blank labels drawn on or printed up at home.

Sara Erenthal  on a sticker (the Sandscrit actually spells "Sara")
Sara by Sara Erenthal

A quickly drawn sticker by Brooklyn Based Sara Erenthal. Check out her murals and other art here, including the one in Park Slope that introduced me to her work. That symbol to the right: I swear it looks like “ART,” but it’s Sara in Sanskrit. She didn’t see that visual pun.

Mummy's not happy with you: Arms Akimbo sticker
Mummy’s Not Happy with You, Arms Akimbo

A fun one. Can’t really tell if this is original art, but it does look printed on a square label from home. Perhaps a downloaded image, perhaps original. Hard to tell. But enjoyable either way.

Clever political sicker: Santa Delivering Coal to the White House for Xmas
Sickers Go Political: Santa Delivering Coal to the White House for Xmas

Another fun one (for my political tastes). Very well drawn, lots of details—my son would approve. As with Mummy above, one can’t really tell if this is original art, but it does look printed on a square label from home. Perhaps a downloaded image, perhaps original. Hard to tell.
Personally, I don’t mind when art gets overtly political. Mostly when I agree with the statement, of course.

Sticker of old fashioned fire plug with "Art we All NYC" legend.
Art We All NYC

Punny sticker from near FIT. Looks homemade. Simple shape in black and white, pasted text, and crude interior lines. I do like the clever play on both the words and the interior white lines, both punning, the shapes reminiscent of windows and doors on a NYC building, inside of a common fire plug. Simple, but with a fair amount going on.

Wall Pastings

Wall pastings are prefabricated art, as are stickers, but aren’t self sticking, and lean harder towards the unique expression of the artist, who creates the image (or images) and then pastes them on surfaces around the city, many times using wheat paste. Reproducible like stickers, yet applied individually more like paint. They occupy a space in between murals and stickers.

The idea of street art as performance art was expressed to a friend of mine after she applied her wall pastings in Red Hook. She knew there were going to vanish, peel, get tagged, scrapped off. But she created them know this, knowing their ephemeral nature. Perhaps the only time they could ever be appreciated fully was immediately after the last swipe of the brush and before something marred it. It’s creation was an artistic act, the results of which lasted hours, days, perhaps weeks. Which makes it no less a work of art. It merely limits who will have the chance to appreciate it, not by dint of wealth or connections, but by luck or diligence. A more egalitarian form of exclusivity.

Well worn sticker of girl holding heart and the words "Everything Good Worth Finding"
Well worn sticker of girl holding heart and the words “Everything Good Worth Finding” by @phoebenewyork

Libby Schoettle aka Phoebe New York’s work can be seen a lot around this town, mostly as these wall pastings. She does a lot more, as can been seen here and on her Instagram account. I’ll try to collect them once I get enough to show her breadth and the abundance of work around town.

Sticker and pasted art composition of a Shocked beast with a bat in its mouth, and haughty RAE
Sticker and pasted art composition of a Shocked beast with a bat in its mouth, and haughty RAE

Another messy composition, a palimpsest of stickers, wall pastings, and tags, jumbled together, competing for attention. The bug-eyed monster and REA are both frequently found in the city. A short history of Brooklyn based Contemporary Rae Street Artist can be found here. And on Pinterest. He’s prolific as is Pheobenewyork. You can also find out more about him on Brooklyn Street Art. Not sure about the monster with fangs though.

Sticker with tRump's visage and "Warning"
Sticker with tRump’s visage and “Warning”

Not much to say about this one. A political statement, especially relevant now, during the COVID-19 pandemic here in NYC. The man is not well-liked in this town, and street artists make this sentiment well known.

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