Banksy certainly does raise a question as to where you draw a line between art and vandalism, but then the whole modern (or should I say contemporary) art movement that has swept the world theoretically suggests that smashing up a car (that doesn’t happen to be yours) with a sledgehammer could quite well be considered art. It could also be considered a criminal offence, and I doubt that the defence of “I’m just expressing my artistic ability” would work with any judge. Yet isn’t this what graffiti basically is – defacing somebody else’s property? Yet what if that property is public property, and what if the mural that is appearing on that property is actually really good – does it become art, and does the artist escape criminal sanction because they have created a work of art?
Sure, there are elements of graffiti that is definitely not art, such as a person’s ‘tag’, which is basically a signature that represents that ‘tagger’s’ territory. I’m sure you have seen these markings about the place, particularly if you have wandered through the inner city.
Okay, these markings are little more than territorial markings (the same way that dogs mark out their territory) however there are forms of graffiti that certainly go beyond this simple marking, and there are countless debates as to whether these should be considered art and whether the artist, if this is art, should be prosecuted. In one sense what they are doing is beautifying a neighbourhood, though beauty is always going to be in the eye of the beholder – one person’s beauty is another person’s rubbish. However, some councils have gone as far as to commission such artwork, though it has been suggested that when councils become involved the quality of the art begins to degrade. Another interesting note is that councils have also handed some sections of a city, such as Graffiti Alley in Ghent and Hosier Lane in Melbourne, to the graffiti artists to do with what they will.
|Like a Tag but more artsy|
|If it’s of Cthulu then it has to be art|
However, Banksy seems to be on another level entirely. Sure, when my friend asked me about the exhibition I made mention that Banksy was a graffiti artist of whom nobody knew the identity, only to realise that this is probably the case with most, if not all, graffiti artists. It isn’t like they are painting on canvas using oil or watercolours – they are painting on other people’s property using spray cans. Yet, when it comes to graffiti artists it seems as if Banksy is the only one that anybody knows, at least by name, and is certainly the only one who has his work put up on display (and there was an exhibition on in Amsterdam when I was there, but after spending four hours at the Rijksmuseum the last thing that my brother wanted was to see more art).
Who Is Banksy?
I’m not sure anybody actually knows, but then again I suspect Banksy knows who he is, however the fact that he keeps his identity a secret does add something to his artwork (though when you go around painting on the Israeli security barrier you probably don’t want to advertise your identity all that much). However, despite the fact that he does keep his identity a secret, for obvious reasons (though no doubt he has people working with him to produce some rather large works of art, such as the parody of Disneyland), there are somethings that we can find out about him.
The thing is, and I have mentioned, is that Banksy is basically a graffiti artist, nothing more, nothing less, but he has somehow managed to transcend from being a street punk to being an artist in his own right. Maybe it has something to do with the art that he actually produces because the exhibition never mentioned what it was that brought him international fame. In fact all they mention is that he was born in Bristol somewhere around 1974, in the early 90s started off as a low-level graffiti artist, and then shifted to stencilling in the late 90s. However, come the turn of the century all of a sudden he is holding exhibitions in London and Los Angeles – what happened?
Well, it seems as if a couple of things happened – first, he shifted to stencilling, and secondly, he met up with Steve Lazarides who became his publisher and his agent. Yet, it is interesting that unlike many graffiti artists he not only became well known, but he also became an artist in his own right to the point where some of his works would be stolen and then auctioned off for millions of dollars. Actually, the exhibition was quite particular in pointing out that theft is, in fact, a crime (and that the lollies shouldn’t be eaten because they have probably been sitting there for so long that they are no longer edible). However, one thing that is noticeable is that his work, unlike a lot off other graffiti art, is uniquely his.
The other thing is the Banksy brand. Sure, when his art started selling it helped with his image, but unlike a lot of artists, he has kept a special image about him – first of all, there is that urban graffiti artist image in that he is the hooded individual that nobody actually has any idea of his identity (though no doubt Lazaridis probably has a pretty good idea as to who he is). The other thing is that unlike a lot of urban art, Banksy’s work, as well as being unique, also has a form of dark humour about it, but is also very scathing of our modern society – in a way it is anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, and anti-authoritarian – it is graffiti that is more than simply a pretty picture painted by a teenager, it is an art in that it is supposed to challenge our perception of the world.
There are a number of things that sets Banksy’s art apart from your typical artistic exhibitions – firstly most exhibitions tend to be set up in galleries, especially art galleries (or as they are referred to in the rest of the world that doesn’t happen to be England or Australia – museums – namely because you go to galleries to buy art, not simply look at it), whereas the Banksy exhibition, as advertised, was in the dodgy car park behind the reasonable car park behind Fed Square. Actually, it was in a tent set up next to the carpark, but they referred to it as a dodgy carpark. As for his other exhibitions, I get the impression that most of them are generally held in places that aren’t galleries (or museums), though he has placed some pieces in museums, usually as a form of social criticism (such as the ‘cave painting that he placed in the British Museum).
The thing is that there is a debate as to whether his art is actually art, or whether it is vandalism. As one writer suggests Banksy’s art dazzles the idiots. Mind you, I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting that, though it is interesting that artists who tend to move art in a new direction tend to be criticised by the conservative culture – the impressionists and post-impressionists discovered this during their time in the sun. However, this isn’t necessarily a question of a style of art, or taking art in a new direction, it is a question of whether it is art or whether it is just a sophisticated form of vandalism. Sure, painting huge words spelling out ‘One Nation Under CCTV’ is more a blatant political message, but painting the image of three men in trench coats examining a telephone box, or a hole in the Palestinian security barrier looking out into a green a pleasant world brings this into contention.
So, I guess this raises the question of what is art, and does art have to be good to be considered art. Well, the problem is whether art is good or not really depends on who is viewing the art. When it comes to painting something on a public wall, or even the wall of somebody else’s building, the question of whether it is good or not suddenly goes out of the window – to certain members of society the skill of the artist is disregarded simply because the actions of the artist are in effect criminal – if one does not have permission to paint on a wall then it doesn’t matter whether the painting is good or not, the artist has committed a criminal offence, and that artwork is in effect defacing private property.
But is it? Are the authorities upset because somebody has come along and defaced private property, or are they upset because the artist has come along and challenged the status quo? Banksy has suggested that graffiti art is a form of guerilla warfare, a means of challenging the authority of a centralised power. If one does not own a train then one goes and paints on a train to challenge and confront the owner of the train. Thus it returns to the concept of the ‘tag’ – the scribble, or signature, that is painted on the wall of various buildings – what this tag is doing is marking out somebody’s territory, and also taking away some power, and some form of ownership, from the owner of the building.
Sale and Resale
The one thing about art is that it carries value, particularly if it is a popular piece of art. The thing is that with most art there is only one example of it (though copies can be made) which can make it pretty difficult to actually assign a value, which is why terms like ‘priceless’ seem to apply to works such as the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s paintings. However, they still have some value, which is why when they are sold they end up at auctions, namely because it is impossible to put a price to some of these works. However, for some warped and twisted reason, it is only when a work of art attains a price, even if it is a price that could be considered ‘priceless’ that is actually becomes a work of art, though the inverse is true in that the reason it has a price is because people attach value to it.
As for Banksy, look, I don’t think he is struggling to make ends meet – sure, he started off as a graffiti artist, and much of his work tends to be temporary, and not all that portable – it is really difficult to actually sell something that has been painted on the side of a building. However, there has been stories that some of his art has been stolen and then sold at auction. Yet, the exhibition I went to I ended up paying $30.00 to see the works of art, and then walked out through a gift shop, which suggests that Banksy is certainly making money off of this (even though there have been exhibitions where he has refused to take a cut).
It is certainly a funny world in which we live in that art that is appreciated ends up having some monetary value attached to it, even if it isn’t measurable. Mind you, fortunately for us, much of this art has landed up in public museums and galleries and available for many of us to see. Still, there is a lot of art in private collections, which is why some exhibitions have a no photograph policy – artwork retains its value through it being unique, and works of art in private collections thrive on that uniqueness. In a way art is like gold, and other precious metals – it is a store of value, and its value is based upon its uniqueness, and when there exists a photograph of this work of art the uniqueness is undermined, which has an adverse effect upon the work of art.
Yet the thing with Banksy is that much of his art, such as Dismaland and the work that he has painted on the walls of various buildings, simply cannot be moved. In a way it moves out of that part of the artistic world that creates something of value to eventually be sold to the highest bidder – this is rebel art, art without value, and art that is temporary – this is an artist who is concerned more for the meaning behind his art than the money that comes out of it. However, I still suspect that if Banksy were to paint something on the side of your house it is going to, eventually, have a rather positive effect on the value of the house.
Like a lot of artists, there are quite a few pieces of work that I would explore when it comes to Banksy, however like a lot of contemporary artists, and also due to Banksy’s use of stencilling, it means that there are multiple versions of his works, and also that they are able to be reproduced on another medium that does not involve the wall of a house (and the stencilling also means that he is able to create the artwork on walls quite quickly and thus being able to decamp the scene before being caught). However, there is another aspect to stencilling, and that is the nature of modern consumer society where things are mass-produced and as such has little, if any, difference between them. We also see this aspect of modern culture in works by artists such as Andy Warhol, but also this influencing Banksy with works such as Kate Moss.
Anyway, I’ll finish off this post with looking at some of his individual works that were on display and providing some commentary on them, noting that a lot of the works simply had a name suggesting that the meaning behind the work is not in the hands of the artist, but rather in the hands of those viewing the artwork.
As with the others, I have included a link on the picture so that you can get a better look at it (where the picture is available on the internet that is, and I suspect most of Banksy’s works are). Anyway, here we have a bunch of punks lining up outside a stall purchasing a t-shirt that reads ‘destroy capitalism’ and if you have a close look at the stall you will notice that the t-shirt has a price tag of 30 quid. This is your typical hypocrisy of the anti-capitalist class (and I know, I’m one of them). On one hand they are decrying capitalism, but in the next thought, they are all rushing off to the local cinema to watch the latest Micheal Moore documentary or purchasing the latest Noam Chomsky book. Of course, there is also a criticism leveled at the people behind the anti-capitalist brand, such as corporations like The Body Shop. Sure, they may not test on animals, and every so often decries the capitalist community, but in the end, they are part and parcel of the system that are operating against (and in a sense even Banksy could be said to have slipped into this hypocrisy).
I’m sure many of us have seen the picture of the man who stood in front of a bunch of Chinese tanks as they were departing Tiananmen Square after putting down a pro-democracy protest (and if you are interested raw footage of the event, it has been posted up on You Tube). Personally, I have no idea as to what happened to this rather brave man, or why the tanks simply didn’t mow him down, but it is one of those images, of a single man standing up to the power of the state, that has captured the imagination of the western world. However, Banksy takes this one step further by putting a sign that says ‘Golf Sale’ into his hand.
What this painting says to me is the insidious nature of Western consumerism – it basically takes what is in effect an iconic image, or work of art, and turns it into what is basically a cheap advertisement for something that is completely unrelated to the topic at hand – sort of like the Mona Lisa wearing Raybans, or the Last Supper being decked out with KFC. What seems to be happening here is that consumerism cheapens art – it takes what is in effect a treasure of human ability and turns it into a means of making more money. This is the case with Banksy’s work – the original image is a picture of a lone man standing up to the power of the state, yet the marketing agencies swoop down upon this image and turn it into an image that basically says ‘you have crushed the rebels, now it’s time to have a relaxing game of golf, and by the way there happens to be a sale on golf clubs as well’.
Have a Nice Day
When I first saw this painting I thought it was just an armoured vehicle flanked by a bunch of riot police, however, upon close look I noticed that they all have happy faces. The happy face appears every so often in Banksy’s work and is similar to his painting Happy Chopper, where we have a fully armed gunship with a pink (or yellow) ribbon under the rotors. In a way this suggests the rather subversive nature of the security forces – they are said to exist to keep peace in society, but in reality, are there to make sure that the power elite’s position is secure. One pastor said, when he was preaching in Sydney during the G8 Conference, was that the police pretty much exist to protect the elite, but the power of the elite, and their security forces, has the flow-on effect of providing us with a safe society – that is if you happen to be white and male of course.
The thing with ‘Have a Nice Day’ is that it shows us this dichotomy – on one had the police are supposed to exist to ‘protect and to serve’, but in another sense they can be pretty authoritarian – such as is the case when the anti-globalisation protests appear – it is not the case that the people protesting may have a point, it is the fact that the protesters are interfering with the goals of the power elite and as such need to be put down – as long as you let the elite do what they want to do and don’t get in the way, then everything is fine. If you do step out of line, you are warned, told that going down that road is incredibly dangerous, and once warned, told to ‘have a nice day’. In a sense, having a nice day means turning off your mind to the realities of the world in which we live and simply going about our daily lives without a care in the world.
Jack & Jill
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water;
Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after;
Well, it seems that from our childhood nursery rhyme, the trek up the hill wasn’t all that safe, however in Banksy’s world it seems as if Jack and Jill have a much more dangerous task before them because they can’t go up the hill unless they are wearing bulletproof jackets. In fact, this is a reality in the majority world – they don’t have access to clean, running, drinking water that comes spurting out of their tap as soon as you turn the knob (and even when Australia was experiencing a drought, we still had our showers, baths, and cafe lattes). Yet in many parts of the world this is not the case – simply getting your daily supply of water is incredibly dangerous – which is why they are wearing flack jackets (and the word police on them simply shows them as being flack jackets).
In another sense, it also shows us the destruction of innocence that many children face around the world, yet despite all of the horrors going on around them (and the fact that their lives are perpetually in danger), they are still able to have fun. Mind you, the whole idea of childhood is actually a modern phenomenon, and the fact that our children are able to enjoy life as children is a rather peculiar thing with our western society. Despite all of the horrors that go on around us, many of us don’t actually realise how safe, and peaceful, a world that our children actually grow up in is.
Sometimes it seems as if our consumerist society is a religion in and of itself, especially with the term ‘shopping therapy’. Actually, I have even seen sayings that indicate that money is, in fact, a religion, and it is scary, particularly when we consider those of us who become our gods and overlords – it is not a question of goodness it is a question of power. Having wealth is a key to entering heaven in this world, and living in poverty is tantamount to living in hell. Okay, this may not be what the picture is actually talking about, but it is close – the sale ends today, and the consumers are here pleading with their overlords to extend it just for a little while.
This is the nature of our disposable society – as soon as something becomes even a little old or a little broken, we want to toss it away and get a new one. The new car, the new house, the new job, or even the new partner. In fact, the consumerist nature of our society has taken over our relationships – what is the best way for the marriage industry to increase sales – have people get married twice, or even more. However all good things must come to an end, and this is the case with the sale that ends today – it is the end of an era, and end of cheap prices and the horrors of having to pay full price forevermore afterwards is a horror that some simply cannot fathom.
“I want to meet my true love, for casual sex” is what is written across this work of art. I have been to many a church service where they speak about how sex has been cheapened, however, I would probably go further to suggest that the whole concept of love has been cheapened. In a way, love is something we only show specific people, not all of society, and only those who are beautiful and are deserving of love. In fact we have the beautiful people and the ugly people, and never the two should meet – how often to we walk past the beggar on the sidewalk, or avoid the person with a noticeable physical disability. In fact how is it that plastic surgery is such a profitable industry, if only for the desire for us to remain young and beautiful.
Then there is this idea of true love, but what is true love – I’m sure if we were to ask the average punter on the street they would actually struggle for an answer. Being a Christian my answer is always going to be ‘to give up one’s life for another’, but then again that is the standard Christian answer, at least from the mouths of those who have an inkling of understanding as to what Christianity is about. However, in our modern world our understanding of True Love is somewhat moulded by Hollywood (and in a way Shakespeare) – the idea of meeting the beautiful and confident partner, and then engaging in sex. In a way it what Banksy is on about here – we have basically lost our understanding of what love is about and what it has effectively become, even though we might vehemently object to this, is little more than casual sex.
I have to admit this picture is pretty cool, and I think it does have a lot of say about our modern society. As I mentioned about how there is this belief that our security forces (whether it be the police or the military) exist to maintain peace and order in our society. Well, in part, but what it is really supporting is the corporate money-making machine. Actually, come to think of it, the only way commerce can really operate is if society is at peace (or at least our society because therein lies the contradiction – war is profitable, incredibly profitable, but also destabilising). In a way, this desire for peace, security, and luxuries like donuts, is something that many of us take for granted. Okay, I’m not necessarily in favour of unrestrained capitalism, but we do actually live in an incredibly peaceful time in an incredibly peaceful society.
Yet it also shows the contradictions as well, particularly with the idea of the police escorting the donut truck. Sure, there is that idea of cops and donuts going hand in hand (and in fact one day I saw an entire police station walk across the road and into a bakery). Yet there is something absurd about this picture, something that suggests that there is more to this security than meets the eye. In a way, it is a sign of a misguided society where our priorities are in the wrong place. Sure, we need the security forces to create a peaceful environment for the purpose of trade and commerce, but the contradiction arises when trade and commerce trump people’s peace and security
Girl with Gold Ballon
This is probably one of the more iconic images, with the image of the heart, which in our modern mindset represents love, being caught by a gust of wind and being wrenched from the hand of a little girl. It reminds me of those times when we would have this wonderful balloon and walking out of the fairground a gust of wind yanks it out of our hands and we watch, dismayed, as it disappears up into the sky, becoming ever more out of reach. In a way this seems to be what is happening in our world – the idea of hope, of peace, of security, and of the ability for us to be able to love one another, is growing ever more distant and we become ever more individual.
Honestly, the world itself has always been this way, but I suspect the reason we look back on it in fondness, particularly since those of us in the minority world grew up in a wealthy, and peaceful, society. I guess it is reflective of those of us with middle-class backgrounds, because even here in Australia children can have a horrific childhood. Yet for many of us, our childhood was an age of wonder, of imagination, and in many cases an age of hope, however, we have grown up, we have become adults, and we have entered the adult world – that love, that hope, that balloon, has been ripped out of our hands and we stand there, dismayed, as it becomes ever smaller.
Anyway, I think I’ll leave it at that, and even though there are a lot more works of art, at least by Banksy, that I could write about, I will probably leave it for another time (particularly since there are a lot more artists that I can write about). Oh, I mentioned taking a sledgehammer to a car? Well, it looks as if Banksy has done this already:
Guerilla Art – The Enigmatic Banksy by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me