I love street art. Something about the freedom of working without traditional materials in an often unlimited canvas captivates me. Those are some of the ideas that first attracted me to art. I have long followed the career of Banksy, one of the most infamous street artists around. Controversial for his messages, as well as the fact that his art is technically done illegally, his career has spanned across the world on walls, in books, and in film. For the month of October, Banksy took up residency in New York City, a place long known for avant-garde art. While I am fortunate enough to visit NYC fairly often, I was not able to be there when as part of his residency, Banksy was putting out a piece of work a day. However, I do have friends there, just as curiously wondering what he would do there. Since this was such a major event in the art world, I wanted to know more and get a first hand account of what exactly went on there. So I introduce to you my first guest writer, artist Jonathan A. Sims and new resident to Brooklyn, and his thoughts on the phenomenon that is Banksy.
UPDATE 5/14: Banksy explains his residency when he was named “Person of the Year” by the Webby Awards.
Reflections on “Better Out Than In,” the Banksy NY Residency
Banksy’s New York “residency” started on October 1, 2013, approximately six weeks after I unloaded a Penske truck with my fiancée into our Brooklyn apartment. It was easy to be excited about it.
There is no denying that New York City has an irrepressible reputation for being the epicenter of the arts in the United States. And once you get here, and you start to pay attention, this fact slowly cements itself into the brains of newcomers. It’s the names. The names of the biggest American and international artists. The names of the best-funded galleries. The names of the biggest museums, with the names of some of the most famous masterworks. And it quickly becomes apparent that in New York City, apart from anywhere else in the U.S., all of these names from books and blogs and documentaries are suddenly very, very, accessible.
For the month of October in New York, Banksy was the most accessible of them all. The arts media started to drum up anticipation, and the blogs began to speculate. I didn’t pay too much attention until the first piece dropped. It seemed like the whole city was caught up in the scavenger hunt. Anyone could see images and location clues of the artwork du jour by simply checking Banksy’s Instagram or banksyny.com. The arts blogs ran posts that quickly filled with “updates” before you even reached the lede, crediting the first lucky searcher who found the work, or noting the dramatic crowds, or posting photos of the work after it had been vandalized by others. A friend of mine Instagrammed a photo with the October 1 stencil, but not before the “Graffiti is a Crime” street sign had been swiped, “not five minutes!” before he got there.
There was a local phone number stenciled nearby, and calling it greeted the listener with Muzak and a calming voice (you can still hear this “gallery description” on the website). A clever parody of the audio guides you can hear on rented audio players in museums, the narrator proceeds to mispronounce Banksy’s name and make fun of the typical artist statement verbiage before throwing up his hands and pronouncing “You decide. Really. I have no idea.” The narrator also mentions that the piece has “probably been painted over by now.”
This transience was a major part of the experience with Banksy NY. For anyone else in the world unable to see these works firsthand, the first image taken by Banksy or his assistants is the way they encounter the work– in pristine condition, fully in line with the artist’s intentions. When we finally got a chance to see his October 2 stencil, “This is my New York Accent,” you could see the hands of at least four or five other vandals. Graffiti begets graffiti, and Banksy is a magnet for spray paint, markers, and thieves.
Viewers are so used to seeing artwork as inviolable. Spend enough time in museums, and most of us will at some point be firmly chastised by a docent or guard for getting too close to a piece, or forgetting to turn off a flash, or some other minor gallery crime. These institutions work hard to create an atmosphere where visitors maintain an assiduous self-consciousness. With public art, there is something exciting about having no restrictions with the art. And there is also offensiveness in seeing that same art molested by others.
Banksy was very careful and very smart about where he chose to display his art. Walking past the Bedford stop on the L train in Williamsburg (the epicenter of the tragically hip neighborhood), we stumbled upon is first mobile piece. “A New York delivery truck converted into a mobile garden (includes rainbow, waterfall and butterflies),” was driven and left at local hot spots chosen to reach maximum promotional visibility. It attracted crowds and cellphone lenses. Shortly after we found it, inexplicably, a young man decided to climb into the truck and walk around its cramped interior. Once he got in there, I think he realized that he had no idea why he did it, and soon climbed back out. It was a mindless decision. It is easy to guess that most of the vandalism of the Banksy artwork was driven by the same mindset.
I couldn’t get upset about the destruction of the public work for very long. With few exceptions, these were illegal canvasses to begin with. The choice of Banksy to continue to work as a rebel artist invites that same kind of behavior. But the early culture that emerged around working in stencil and spraypaint demands that authenticity as a street artist be accompanied with risk and disobedience.
Maintaining street rep normally also includes an apparent indifference for the material gain that would accompany being an international art star, a disingenuous myth that continues to celebrate the “starving artist” as the most pure form of the professional. Banksy is now extremely wealthy, but he has carefully choreographed the impression that he is still giving his art away. Perhaps the most notorious and humorous day of “Better Out Than In” was a video of an old man in Central Park selling authentic and signed Banksy canvases for $60 each. The punch line? Only eight paintings sold for a total of $420, though some media outlets inflated the value to $225,000 in total.
Everyone was talking about the payday. How if we had been there, we could have raked it in. Of course, it isn’t funny to remind people that the paintings themselves were pretty boring, and if any name besides Banksy was attached to them, it would be hard to value them at $60 each. In the end, it was, like everything else produced in October by Banksy, a feat of amazing marketing. A clever promotional event, in which every part serves to increase the value of the artistic artifacts.
If there is a single argument that can be made in justifying Banksy as a meaningful contemporary artist, it is in the fact that the market price of his work continues to confront us with the dilemma of defining what is valuable as “art.” Property owners who had never heard of Banksy before were suddenly confronted with a totally new situation. In a closet somewhere nearby, or in the trucks of professional vandalism remediators, sit buckets of thick paint ready to erase graffiti. These buckets get employed hundreds of times a week all over New York City. If you walk up to the wall you own and find a crowd of people ready to attack you for painting on your wall, it can be pretty stunning. If art has enough cultural or material value to challenge the accepted notion that vandalism is inherently wrong, then the word’s definition has to be expanded again for the millionth time.
But in that same fact rests the anger and resentment that I was surprised to find in New York against Banksy. It is no surprise to find that many established members of the arts community judge the work as banal, as they are wont to do, and scoff at its popularity amongst the youth. Rebellion is the leitmotif that constantly follows Banksy. His refusal to come out of the shadows of anonymity and work in a more traditional capacity as an artist rankles more than a few people, an irritation even more grating by his inarguable success. Articles appeared in New York papers telling Banksy that he was unwelcome here— a recurring theme among them centered around the cosmic injustice that Banksy could elicit such a popular response when New York’s own resident graffiti artists, such as 5 POINTZ in Queens, are languishing.
In the last week of October, in the buildup to Halloween, Banksy unveiled an absurd and timely performance piece in the Bowery, which was to remain up from dusk to midnight from Friday to Sunday. A friend of mine texted me on Sunday asking if I had seen it yet, and we were compelled by the deadline to grab a train into Manhattan. There, behind a large fenced area on a concrete slab, a humongous mannequin of Death himself crouched in a remote-control bumper car and zipped back and forth, his battle-worn scythe extended above him in homage to the sparking electrical contact typical to the carnival ride. Musicians took turns playing continental accordion music as interludes between the real show: disco lights flashed and a machine pumped smoke as “Don’t Fear the Reaper” blared into the cool night. The Grim Reaper zipped into overdrive at these moments, and the bobbed to and fro on springed joints in the cramped space and occasionally slammed into a wall with stunning force. The whole thing was utterly ridiculous. View video here
In that ridiculousness is the joy of Banksy. Almost all of his work hinges on humor in some way—be it the general silliness of stuffed animals going to slaughter, or the observational jokes at the expense of capitalism or the political establishment, or the situational comedy of his site-specific gags involving children and beavers. A lot of the jokes are clever, and viewers enjoy his ironic juxtaposition of the beautiful and the decrepit (butlers and geisha girls), or the political and entertainment (Syrian fighters and Dumbo), and this alone probably goes a long way in explaining his popularity. But like anything that relies on joke-telling, some of the jokes aren’t that funny, and work built on facetiousness will always risk being seen as trivial.
But seeing the Grim Reaper riding a bumper car and slam into a wall with a Blue Oyster Cult soundtrack? That just makes me happy.
Jonathan Sims is a painter living in Brooklyn, New York. His work can be seen at www.chromadetic.com.