As the enigmatic street artist closes his month-long ‘residency’ in New York, it’s unclear where genuinely incendiary art fits into the world of commerce.
With Banksy’s month-long New York exhibition having come to a conclusion over Halloween, savvy New Yorkers now get a chance to reflect upon the tricks and treats the famously anonymous street artist served up for his adoring fans. It is doubtful, however, whether any will really appreciate Banksy’s art – ephemeral and transitory as the street he makes his canvas – or his message.
That’s because, like that other great piece of art depicting New York and New Yorkers – “Seinfeld” – the joke is ultimately on them. Banksy’s whimsical pieces – whether it is a street protestor throwing flowers or a flower sprouting from the destroyed World Trade Center towers, all point out the inherent absurdities of modern life. Banksy’s work is therefore not so much art as irony, and he dishes it up by the truckload.
…sometimes literally, as in the recent case of the meat truck filled with cute, bleating stuffed animals about to be taken to the slaughter. Funny and decidedly creepy, yes, but observers are more likely to reflect upon the silliness of it rather than the darker message it contains about the horror show that is the animal side of industrial agriculture.
The joke’s on the audience
So too is the message likely lost when it comes to his more directly anti-establishment, anti-capitalist pieces such as the graffiti boy tagging a building while being accompanied by his butler or an angry Ronald McDonald having his shoes shined. Both, of course, speak to the contemporary issue of wealth inequality, but observers of the piece are at least left untargeted by the artist’s wit.
Not so in the case of the mischievous prank Banksy set in motion on Oct. 14, when he slyly put on sale originals of his work at a nondescript sidewalk kiosk in Central Park. Without the media to clue people in as to what was really going on, hardly anyone bothered to snap up the precious pieces – which commonly sell for as much as a $250,000 – for the bargain-basement price of $60. When the joke was revealed, the few who had actually bought the offered Banksy originals squealed in delight, while others flocked to fake Banksy kiosks – set up by even savvier New Yorkers to make some quick cash – which promptly sold out.
It’s clear, then, that Banksy, if not many of his fans, at least understands the degree to which he himself has become a luxury commodity, not unlike a Ming vase or Greek sculpture. But, like all such commodities, it’s a distinction built on the air of mass appeal and tastemaker opinion. Take that away and, as his anonymous art sale demonstrates, he and his art become easily ignored material hawked by street buskers.
The larger message that Banksy’s stunt proves is that what is often seen as fine quality or of high distinction is anything but, while that which is derided for being cheap or of low quality may actually be superb. What matters in each case is the degree to which the mob, both highbrow and low, perceives it to be. Art, it turns out, is pretty similar to the high-priced fine wines that blind taste-testers, including professional wine-tasters, cannot tell apart from the $5 discount brands one might find on the lower shelves of the local liquor store.
Re-mystifying the “normal”
This, in turn, explains why Banksy likely prefers to showcase his work on the street as opposed to the gallery or museum. Stripped of all the psychological bells and whistles that subtly and not-so-subtly hint as to how the observer should view the piece, one can take a given work on its own merit to provoke, delight or mystify. As a consequence, this makes the everyday world a bit more mysterious and enjoyable. Is it a just a pile of bricks, or is it an installations piece? Is that just an empty hole in the concrete, or is something more mysterious – like a painting – found inside?
One never knows, especially when a merry trickster like Banksy is around to keep us all on our toes. Understanding that fact and learning to appreciate the irony that comprises the world around us thus seems to be his message. Have fun with it, he seems to be saying, while also being cognizant of the larger, societal issues that nonetheless make his ironic art so amusing. Embrace the whimsical, he says, but try to be socially conscious and serious, too.
So will Banksy’s legions of fans take the hint and allow the art of the everyday into their lives? Will they free themselves from the need to be told what to appreciate by art world opinion-makers? Will they, as a consequence, view the mundane and dreary in a different light? Will they look past the wizard to see that the man behind the curtain is, in the end, just like them? — That they, too, can decide what is or is not art according to their own tastes and fancy?
Probably not, and that’s a pity – for it means that Banksy, like all revolutionaries, is doomed to be co-opted into the very system of professional taste-making he detests and seeks to undermine. No matter how many stones he throws or how many pranks he pulls on what passes for the establishment these days, his very popularity ensures that, willingly or not, he will become part of what is considered accepted taste by the world’s fashion-makers and trendsetters. Like the Borg from Star Trek, they will assimilate him and make his work their own. Resistance, no matter how delightful to the observer, is futile.
Thus, the ultimate joke is on Banksy, and he likely knows it, too. His curse is to live in an age when corporations seek to be as unconventional and cool as he is, meaning that no matter how ‘out there’ Banksy gets with his pieces and pranks, some Manhattan PR guy will be quick to follow – only with the goal of making a buck for some corporation rather than waking people up to the existence of art in their everyday lives or the uncomfortable ironies embedded deep into the foundations of contemporary society.
Banksy’s fate, then, is to end up like Che Guevara – emblazoned on a T-shirt, imploring you to buy a Coke. Ours is to decide whether to purchase whatever that inevitable Banksy T-shirt, made by children in some Bangladeshi sweatshop somewhere, tells us to buy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.