July 15 was our final day as a group in Paris. It began with a street art tour. Street art may be something that we obliviously walk by every day, especially in Paris, which in many ways can be said to be the world’s largest open-air-museum. But otherwise, street art in the traditional sense, and for the most part, is ignored, is considered illegal, and is generated with the knowledge that it is ephemeral, that it will fade away, may suffer vandalism, or get altogether dismantled and removed by the authorities.
One wonders, then, what is the point of street art, specially knowing that it is by its very definition transitory, “fugitive,” illicit, and fragile. Another question is whether or not street art is indeed art: Who decides that it is really art? What is art? Why is street art illegal, what would be on a wall or a structure had the art not been there, and would the viewer be better or worse off without it? Is street art really worse than a blank dirty wall?
Our street art tour got us thinking about this public form of artistic expression in ways that we might not have considered before. It made us take heed of, and focus more attention on, things that we might have passed by, or overlooked, or disdained beforehand. Long before humans were able to write and read, they were in fact, perhaps unwittingly, making art. Indeed, there seems to be an innate human need to leave a mark on this earth, and in this case “street art” appears to be the medium of choice for leaving one’s imprints on the world about us. In fact, so important is it for “street artists” to leave their mark, that they are often willing to go to great heights and lengths, reaching for odd impracticable places, often at great personal risks to their safety, just to be able to showcase their creations.
In a way, “street artists” are immortal in the sense that when someone covers up their creation, they often return to it, and coat the “canvas” with another illustration; or other artists may come to it and add their own input. In fact, more street art is always being put up than can ever be taken down. This very public and free art form allows people to express themselves, displaying their politics, their challenges, their life difficulties, societal issues, the inhumanity (andhumanity) of humans, and hopes, dreams and fears, and perhaps even just the need to convey something that is simply and randomly beautiful and ought to be shared.
At times images can speak louder than words, without forcing one’s views on the audience, and due to the fact that art can be interpreted differently by different people. There is no wrong way or right way of artistic creation. Some may look at a piece of wall art and say “I could frame that and put it in my home”; others may cringe in horror. And so, street art is definitely a form that that doesn’t please everyone and does not move everyone in the same manner. But that is not the point. We may not know the meaning or understand the purpose of a given display; yet someone felt the need and had a desire to put it on the wall. Take for instance the impulse (or art) of glueing cards to a ceiling; or making a plaster model of a breast, painting it, and glueing it to a wall. These sorts of displays awaken a certain curiosity in the viewer, making them wonder whatever drove the author to express themselves in such a manner. To wit, the breast could be a woman’s statement on misogyny, or patriarchy, or simply a way of expressing her freedom. Other displays may pay homage to a dead artist, victims of a terrorist attack, a movie, or even traditional artists or classical paintings.
Street art may convey strong, perhaps troubling images; an African baby sitting in a Louis Vuitton bucket for instance. What is the meaning of such an image? A viewer, depending on his or her predisposition and socialization may look at such an image from different perspectives: What does an African baby sitting in a Louis Vuitton bucket mean? Some may put more value on (and bring more attention to) the baby. Others may valorize the bucket instead; a Louis Vuitton, of course. Such an image may also make us wonder where exactly our charity money go; does what we donate go to help an African baby, or does it become someone’s undeserved, decadent, luxury item?
Likewise, the Star Wars pieces that we saw could be an expression of good/bad, light/dark side, and white vs. black in our society. “VOUS ÊTES ICI” (you are here,) is a parody of Parisian street maps, telling the viewer where they are. It is placed on the wall, you know you are there but you can’t associate where. Alternatively–and again, depending on how one may be pre-disposed to interpret a given situation–“VOUS ÊTES ICI” may be someone’s take on John Lennon’s “You are not here” (a phrase that greeted visitors at the entrance of his home,) or even Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” perhaps emphasizing “the treachery of images.” By the same token, the image of a sheep saying “we are all sheep” may be a statement on the way the government treats us; a soldier holding a plant suggests that we put our money towards violence instead of life; and a space invader next to a McDonald’s and KFC may be a statement on who’s really invading Paris…
Much of the street art may be on or around “ugly buildings” that were hastily erected during the housing crisis in France after World War II and the Algerian war. The artists “tagging” these structures may be trying to make them beautiful for themselves and their neighbors. If we can’t tell what it is at least it adds color and character to the wall. Artists make use of many different methods, such as spray paint, stencils, gluing on a sculpture, wood, tiles, chalk etc. Art may also be made out of biodegradable or recycled material such a grass, plants, broken glass, mirrors, paper etc., although it should be noted that these street art neighborhoods are not for every neighborhood in Paris. Yet, it may be nice to have a variety of looks and different perspectives of the city of Paris.
During our tour an old man noticed us studying the street art, and he excitedly came over to us to let us know where to find more and which ones we absolutely had to see. His eyes lit up, he was proud of the street art in his neighborhood, and he wanted it to be seen and shared.
Later in the evening we went out and enjoyed our final dinner together; a gathering à la française filled with great food and talk and laughter. We discussed our favorite and least favorite parts of our program. We all found it difficult to pick a “least favorite” besides wishing the course had lasted longer. This final day and final dinner together was bittersweet. After dinner we headed off to our bateaux mouches tour for a final ride along the seine, just before the sun was about to set. On board, we had a perfect view of the city’s monuments, with a beautifully colored sunset in the background. As night began caressing the buildings, they were lit up (albeit discretely and elegantly) with artificial light, emphasizing their breathtaking architecture. The best time to be out in Paris is by night. The Tour Eiffel was lit up as well, in the colors of the French flag, blue white and red; a beautiful sight and a powerful image, especially on the week of Bastille Day and in light of the horrors visited on Paris, most recently the carnage and terrible loss of life in the Nice attack.
A bit of unease notwithstanding, it was a beautiful way to end the night and to end the program. We will all miss each other and the good times we had together in Paris, but we know that we will all meet again, (qui sait?) perhaps in Paris as well. “We’ll always have Paris” as they say.