I’d been feeling kinda down on Banksy, a bit nauseated from the giant dollops of sugar he’d been delivering in the form of children and balloons and flowers. I thought perhaps he’d become lazy and was just phoning in a lot of cute Hallmark Card sentimentality and I just didn’t care for it any more.
But, when I saw Jerry Saltz’s anti-Banksy rant in New York mag, watched him conduct a man-on-the-street seminar in front of one of the cutesier pieces, and read through an arduously silly Banksy-bashing string on his Facebook page, I decided that perhaps the artist’s New York gig, Better Out Than In, wasn’t going so bad after all! (That is, until THIS happened [or not]).
He’d put some bees in a few bonnets, and I love people who put bees in bonnets! So I gave it all another look.
Populism, Place, Politics
Banksy starts with populism. One never has to go very deep to connect with people on the small charms, social foibles, and financial frustrations of everyday life. And doing that with visual puns and trompe l’oeil tricks made Banksy the beloved figure he is in UK, where class issues rule the day. The fact is, Banksy’s spray puns resonate with passers-by because they hit that comic sweet spot: recognition.
But, like Shakespeare (yes, I went there) Banksy’s works operate across many levels. For instance, Banksy’s, often quite clever, use of place: Banksy uses surface, found elements, and environmental contex to tweak the familiar and make the viewer a part of the work.
And then there’s the politics. Again, populist; Banksy is clearly never going out on a limb when he thumbs his nose at royalty, at corporations, at banks and government. That’s the sort of political satire that goes down easily. What makes it interesting is the mischief. He’s not just engaging in populist politics; he’s doing it in the face — often ON the face— of authority.
Okay, that’s all cute, you say. So what?
Here’s the so what for all you art snobs out there who need something bigger than charm and wit to hang your kudos on. The real mischief that puts a cherry on top of the ironic ice cream sundae is that Banksy has made a giant comic performance of anonymity, exaggeration, art market mockery, and layers of mystery. He may have started as a slightly mawkish, visually clever, streetwise Norman Rockwell, but he’s built a long career and has used that to leverage one hell of an intricate web of postmodern mastery.
Starting, again, with the low brow, Banksy’s street puns were already, early on, using the street to reference the street.
But then he started adding interference.
Then he started adding video — which increased his mystique.
Then he did interviews wearing the ape mask which made him seem bad ass.
Then he started leveraging rumor through all of the above and social media.
Then he made the film Exit Through the Gift Shop — a documentary which deliberately left people wondering if he was not executing a hoax.
Now, in New York, he has added an 800 number which adds another layer to the works he’s dropping on the streets — full of hints, and questions, and misleading innuendo—and showing off, meanwhile, a talent for prose—which, given the many layers of ambiguity, might, or might not, be his own.
Think about it: anonymous street artist works stealthily for years, builds a name and brand so huge his stuff is blue chip madness, builds on this with some very tight, well managed PR— while remaining anonymous!— messes around with the art world as much as he pleases — and still works the STREETS.
Give credit where it is due: this is an impossible tale made real only by some very well contrived guerrilla tactics.