Genius or Scam Artist?
Artist and provocateur Banksy is a walking, breathing oxymoron. Depending on who you ask, he is either a genius or an overhyped vandal, a talented documentary filmmaker or a brilliant scam artist. As a self-described art terrorist, he is both a lefty and a critic of liberal piety. He flips off the art world establishment, and yet courts the very art world he claims to detest. He is a street artist who sells his work for high sums in galleries and auction houses, and “an anarchist environmentalist who travels by chauffeured S.U.V.”1
The Banksy Mythology
The identity of Banksy is one of the best-kept secrets in the art world, though there has been plenty of speculation about who is behind the spray-painted rats, policemen, soldiers, apes, and children appearing in the streets of London, Bristol, Toronto, Los Angeles, Berlin, and Detroit.
According to the BBC, Banksy “was born in 1974 and raised in Bristol, England.” In his book Stencil Graffiti, author and graphic designer Tristan Manco says that Banksy is “the son of a photocopier technician” who “trained as a butcher but became involved in graffiti during the great Bristol aerosol boom of the late 1980s.” The pseudonym “Banksy” is most likely a shortened version of “Bankside,” a district of London on the South Bank of the river Thames. Bankside is dominated by the former Bankside Power Station, which now houses the Tate Modern.
Banksy’s unique style relies on the use of stencils, a method he began using widely in 2000 due to its precision and efficiency (efficiency being key if one hopes to avoid the cops). Like Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, stencils give Banksy’s work a cohesive style and allow him to produce variations on a theme.
Banksy’s fan base is enormous, and growing by the day. There are websites devoted to tracking the locations of his street paintings. One fan named Simon Hassett recently released a new iPhone app that maps the location of Banksy’s art around the globe and lets viewers peruse a gallery of his work. Banksy’s 2009 solo show at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery was attended by over 300,000 people and his work currently sells for astronomical prices at auction houses. Brad Pitt, Damien Hirst, Angelina Jolie, and Dennis Hopper are some of his collectors. As the Guardian reported, a recent poll of 18- to 25-year-olds named Banksy an “arts hero” in third place behind Walt Disney and Peter Kay, and ahead of Leonardo da Vinci.
Arch Prankster or Art Genius?
“Despite what they say graffiti is not the lowest form of art,” Banksy says in his bestselling book Wall and Piece. “Although you might have to creep about at night and lie to your mum it’s actually one of the more honest art forms available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on the best walls a town has to offer and nobody is put off by the price of admission.”
Claims like these are part of Banksy’s populist mythology. He gives the impression that he’s just some average, working-class guy who’s managed to make a name for himself in the high-class art world, in part because of his own cleverness, but also because of the art world’s stupidity.
There’s no doubt that the artist’s daring and tongue-in-cheek levity contribute to his mass appeal. Puncturing pretension is Banksy’s primary aim, and he accomplishes this by creating works that are the artistic equivalent of one-liner jokes. Most art critics don’t take Banksy very seriously. Here’s Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones on Banksy:
“The easy humour that makes his work superficially likable removes from it any hope of being mad or poetic. He chooses grimly potent images, yet never has the Grim Reaper been less grim than on a wall in Shoreditch, where he gives Death a yellow smiley face. The jokes reduce underground culture to something rationalist and mild, with a cosy, chatty familiarity.
This deprives his art of the qualities that graffiti can offer modern art: its violence and chaos and paranoid mania…In 1980s New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat was seen as a raw hero of authentic street art, revitalising American painting.
But Basquiat’s art exposes Banksy’s. Where Basquiat’s has the dirt and mystique of true graffiti, dredging something from Down There, even though Basquiat actually came from a middle-class background and briefly attended a school for gifted children, Banksy is merely one of the lads, having a laugh…
One of Banksy’s most irritating attributes is his conservatism, as an artist who seems proud of the fact that he “draws”, rather than just making “concepts.” He appeals to people who hate the Turner prize. It’s art for people who think that artists are charlatans. This is what most people think, so Banksy is truly a popular creation: a great British commonsense antidote to all that snobby pretentious art that real people can’t understand. Yet to put your painting in a public place and make this demand on attention while putting so little thought into it reveals a laziness in the roots of your being.”
This is one of the more articulate criticisms I’ve read about the weaknesses in Banksy’s work, and for the most part I agree with Jones. And yet, I find it impossible not to be fascinated and entertained by an artist who is crazy enough to paint on the West Bank Wall or bold enough to place an inflatable doll dressed like a Guantanamo Bay prisoner inside the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland.
The Real Villains
Institutions that are both powerful and ridiculous are perfect targets for Banksy, and I, like many others, enjoy cheering him on. His work may fail to live up to its aesthetic potential, but it succeeds as social satire. Perhaps Banksy belongs more in the comedic camp of Stephen Colbert, Punch magazine, South Park or Monty Python than in the aesthetic tradition of artists like Da Vinci, Pollock, or Warhol.
“Graffiti is only dangerous in the mind of three types of people; politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers,” Banksy writes in his book. “Graffiti writers are not real villains. Real villains consider the idea of breaking in someplace, not stealing anything and then leaving behind a painting of your name in four foot high letters the most retarded thing they ever heard of.”*
Advertising is a frequent target of Banksy’s street art, and he has found inventive ways of criticizing commercialism.
“Brandalism,” says Banksy, is “any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not…The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to answer back. Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.”*
In 2006 Banksy replaced around 500 copies of Paris Hilton’s debut album in 48 different record stores with his own version of the CD, which contained musical remixes by Danger Mouse. Banksy produced several new versions of artwork for the record.
In one version, Hilton steps out of an expensive car into a group of homeless people. The caption reads: “90% of success is just showing up.” The album’s tracks were given titles like “Why Am I Famous?” and “What Have I Done?.” According to the BBC, numerous copies of the album were purchased by the public before stores were able to remove them. Some CDs were later sold for more than $1200 on online auction websites.
When Banksy had the opportunity to create the opening title credits for the popular show The Simpsons in 2010, he turned the sequence into a social critique of the show’s own labor practices. According to the BBC, Banksy’s controversial opening couch gag for The Simpsons episode “MoneyBART” led to “delays, disputes over broadcast standards and a threatened walk out by the animation department.”
The extended title sequence was supposedly inspired by reports that the The Simpsons “outsources the bulk of their animation to a company in South Korea.” The sequence starts with Bansky’s tag appearing on various Springfield landmarks. It then pans to a dark factory where dozens of Korean workers are drawing animation cells and creating Simpsons’ merchandise. The credits end with the 20th Century Fox logo guarded by searchlights, a barbed wire fence, and watchtower. You can watch the entire sequence here:
I Want Out
In recent years, Banksy’s work has grown more daring and overtly political. In 2005 while visiting the Palestinian territories, the artist supposedly dodged the watchful eyes of guards and snipers in order to create nine images on the Israeli West Bank wall. These paintings, which depict a ladder going up and over the wall and children digging a hole, remain some of his boldest work to date.
He has also tackled the issue of animal rights in his work. At the London Zoo, he painted “We’re bored of fish” in seven-foot-high letters inside the penguin enclosure. At the Bristol Zoo he wrote “I want out. This place is too cold. Keeper smells. Boring, boring, boring.” inside the elephant enclosure.
In his first official New York exhibition, “Village Pet Store And Charcoal Grill,” animatronic pets in the store window included a rabbit applying makeup while staring into a mirror, and a mother hen watching over her baby Chicken McNuggets as they pecked at a barbecue sauce packet. “Inside the store, hot dogs and sausages squirm like snakes in sand-filled terrariums, and the floating fish sticks are so lifelike that a visitor tapped on the tank, as if to get their attention,” Melena Ryzik wrote in a New York Times review.
Always a man of contradictions, Banksy outraged some animal rights supporters when he painted a live Indian elephant, from head to tail, in a floral pattern reminiscent of vintage wallpaper for his show in Los Angeles. Although the paint was non-toxic and the L.A. Animal Services Department had granted a permit, L.A. officials later changed their minds and ordered the elephant’s owners to remove the paint.
Vandalism or Public Art?
What I find most interesting about Banksy’s work are the questions it raises about the very nature of art. Banksy’s work is an intriguing example of how slippery the definition of “art” can be in the public sphere.
In 2008 the Westminster City Council in England deemed Banksy’s “One Nation Under CCTV” graffiti and ordered it removed. The council said that Banksy had “no more right to paint graffiti than a child.” Robert Davis, the chairman of the council planning committee told The Times newspaper: “If we condone this then we might as well say that any kid with a spray can is producing art,”
This no-tolerance response to graffiti by local government authorities is a by product of the broken window theory, developed by criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling in the 1980s and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. In their 1982 article “Broken Windows” in The Atlantic Monthly Wilson and Kelling argue that vandalism and urban disorder create an environment which invites further vandalism and more serious crime. “Consider a building with a few broken windows,” they write. “If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows.”
The irony is that in Banksy’s case, the broken window theory has been turned on its head. In Wall and Piece Banksy says that he received the following message through his website from a man named Daniel:
“I don’t know who you are or how many of you there are but I am writing to ask you to stop painting your things where we live. In particular xxxxxx road in Hackney. My brother and me were born here and have lived here all our lives but these days so many yuppies and students are moving here neither of us can afford to buy a house where we grew up anymore. Your graffities are undoubtably part of what makes these wankers think our area is cool. You’re obviously not from round here and after youve driven up the house prices you’ll probably just move on. Do us all a favour and go do your stuff somewhere else like Brixton.”
Is there really a man named Daniel? It’s impossible to know if this message is real or fake, (I’m inclined to doubt its authenticity), but there have been other documented cases of Banksy’s work impacting the value of real estate.
Dollars and Sense
In 2007 BBC News reported that the owners of a Bristol house with a Banksy mural on the outside would only sell to buyers who promised to preserve the mural. When Red Propeller art gallery took over the sale of the house, it was listed as “a mural with a house attached.”
A year earlier, Banksy drew an image of a naked man hanging out of a bedroom window on a wall in Bristol. The painting sparked a hot debate, but the Bristol City Council left the painting’s fate up to the public, who ultimately decided to save the mural.
Thanks to some outspoken members of the community, certain Banksy art works are now officially protected by authorities. In the end, I suspect that the decision to label one street painting “art” and another “vandalism” comes down to dollars and cents. Banksy’s work has the potential to attract new visitors to neighborhoods, and more visitors means more tourist dollars for local businesses.
Banksy’s popularity creates some interesting complications for local authorities. As the value and exposure of his work increases, his paintings become an easier target for theft and “vandalism” (a particularly loaded term in the case of street art). How exactly are authorities expected to respond to such “defacement”? Once a Banksy piece is officially labeled “art” are authorities now obligated to protect it? It’s fascinating to think that a painting once deemed a public menace suddenly merits conservation simply because its label has changed from “vandalism” to “public art.”
The mural in Bristol is a good case in point. According to the Guardian, the piece was “vandalized” in 2009 and subsequently restored. That same year, a community group in Stokes Croft, Bristol, removed red paint from another damaged Banksy. In July of 2011 a Banksy image of a gorilla in a pink mask on the wall of the former North Bristol Social Club, in Eastville, was mistakenly painted over. Saeed Ahmed, the building’s new owner, apologized, explaining that he had never heard of Banksy. The artwork has now been partially restored.
Confused yet? If you suddenly feel like Alice through the looking glass, you’re not the only one.
“Art is a bit of a joke”
Given Banksy’s distrust and condemnation of the commerical art world, it’s no surprise that he has taken his guerrilla art from the streets into the museums themselves. The uneasy relationship between commercialism and the art world is one of the central themes in Banksy’s work.
In 2005 the Wooster Collective website posted photographs of Banksy placing subverted artworks in the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 2005 Banksy also added Early Man Goes to Market credited to “Banksymus Maximus” to gallery 49 of the British Museum. When the painting was discovered, the museum responded not with outrage, but with complicity and promptly added the piece to their permanent collection.
“His Warhol parody — depicting a Tesco Value Cream of Tomato Soup can — lasted six days in the Museum of Modern Art, New York,” Charlotte Higgins noted in the Guardian. “For someone who sneers at the academy (‘the art world is the biggest joke going’, he has said) he seems remarkably keen to enter it.”
Documentary or Prankumentary?
Banksy’s first film Exit Through the Gift Shop may be his most daring and brilliant critique yet of the art world. The film, which debuted at Sundance in 2010, is either an entertaining documentary about L.A. street art and the gullibility of the art world or a genius hoax. Regardless, it is the media, the commercial art world, and collectors who are the targets of Banksy’s biting satire.
If you haven’t yet seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, I urge you to, for it’s nearly impossible to convey its cleverness, humor, and complicated twists and turns here. In short, the film tells the story of French immigrant Thierry Guetta, who lives in Los Angeles, and his obsession with street art. The film captures Guetta’s obsession with video taping his cousin, the street artist Invader, and his cousin’s friends, who include street artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy,
Guetta wants to make the ultimate street art documentary, but he is better at taking new footage than he is at editing. Boxes of video tape and film footage accumulate, until finally, in frustration, Banksy decides to take matters into his own hands and make the film himself. Banksy turns the tables on Guetta and makes him the subject of his own film. Ultimately, Banksy inspires Guetta to take on the persona of Mr. Brainwash and to mount his own street art show with surprising and entertaining results.
The way the narrative folds on itself again and again, with the filmmaker and artist switching roles is pure genius. And all the while the media and art critics watch and respond with PR hype and critical hyperbole, and unknowing collectors throw money at Mr. Brainwash.
“I could never have written a script this funny.”
The power of Exit Through the Gift Shop lies not only in the work itself, but also in the larger questions the film generates. Audiences and critics are still debating if the film is a real documentary or a brilliant fake.
New York Times movie reviewer Jeannette Catsoulis declared that the film had created a new film subgenre–the “prankumentary.” “The whole thing, it’s clear now, was an intricate prank being pulled on all of us by Banksy, who has never publicly revealed his identity, with Fairey as his accomplice,” wrote Alissa Walker in Fast Company. But Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr disgreed. “I’m not buying it; for one thing, this story’s too good, too weirdly rich, to be made up. For another, the movie’s gently amused scorn lands on everyone.”
Everyone from the SuicideGirls to Banksy himself has insisted on the authenticity of the film. In The New York Times, Melena Ryzik records these reactions from both Shepard Fairey and Banksy: “‘Of course the more I try to say it’s all true, the more it sounds like I’m somehow perpetuating the conspiracy,’” said Mr. Fairey….‘I don’t know why so many people have been fooled into thinking this film is fake,’ Banksy, or someone purporting to be he, wrote in an e-mail message from Los Angeles….‘It’s a true story from real footage. Does it bother me people don’t believe it? I could never have written a script this funny.’”
In an interesting twist, photographer Glen Friedman recently sued Thierry Guetta for breach of copyright over his photograph of Run DMC and won. A further hearing will decide the extent of damages. Does this successful lawsuit suggest that the film is the real deal, or only that Guetta did indeed use Friedman’s image in his own art work?
Only Banksy and a select few know the whole truth about his film, but in this case the truth isn’t the point. At the end of Exit Through the Gift Shop when Banksy is asked what it all means, he replies, “Maybe it means art is a bit of a joke.”
Regardless of the film’s authenticity, Exit is a fascinating film. It was even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. When Banksy learned of the nomination, he released this statement: “This is a big surprise… I don’t agree with the concept of award ceremonies, but I’m prepared to make an exception for the ones I’m nominated for. The last time there was a naked man covered in gold paint in my house, it was me.”
No More Heroes
Personally, I find the questions surrounding Banksy’s work and the public and critical response more fascinating than the actual artwork. I don’t find the same, deep pleasure in his work as I do in a painting by Agnes Martin or Turner. The pleasure is of a different sort. I browse through Banksy’s book Wall and Piece for the same reason I watch The Daily Show–it’s entertaining, often funny, and occasionally brilliant.
And although Banksy may not be an exceptional artist in an aesthetic sense, he does force us to think about the provocative complexities of art–of art as a label, as a commodity, as an inside joke, as a weapon, as an obsession, as hype, as a human right.
Damien Hirst once said, “As an artist you always make work from what’s around you and money was around me, and I thought what can I do while this money is here?” Hirst’s controversial response was to create a multi-million dollar skull covered with diamonds. Sigh.
Banksy’s success leaves him in a similar position to Hirst’s. He can no longer make claims of being a creative outsider. Like Hirst, Banksy is now surrounded by money. He must decide how to contend with the fame and fortune that’s come his way.
It is difficult to maintain an outsider’s gritty edge when the rich and famous have decided to embrace you. Of all of Banksy’s works, Exit Through the Gift Shop is his best to date, in part because he decides to explore this paradox instead of ignoring it. Banksy’s film makes Hirst’s diamond skull look like Mr. Potato Head by comparison. The film is everything Hirst’s skull is not–complex, humorous, human, provocative.
With our bad economy and current discontent with our financial sector, our politicians, and abusive corporations, Banksy represents a pop hero of sorts. Like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, Banksy finds the hilarity in our screwed up, dysfunctional world. His popularity only proves that we need humor now more than ever.
“We don’t need any more heroes,” says Banksy, “we just need someone to take out the recycling.”*
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I’d love to hear your own thoughts on Banksy: arch prankster or art genius? And how about Exit Through the Gift Shop? Do you think it’s a real documentary or is the entire “prankumentary” a Banksy art piece? Post your comments below or on the Gwarlingo Facebook page.
*Note: Banksy quotes from Wall and Piece.