Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Banksy Effect

[NB: The argument could be made that including performative disciplines like art, music, or theater under the heading "Humanities" is categorically incorrect. However, I am of the opinion that the specifically creative arts face many of the same challenges that disciplines like 'Philosophy' or 'Cultural Policy' do, and therefore should be included when talking about the wider issue of value judgments on non-scientific disciplines. Also, if English and 'Creative Writing' both fall within the Humanities, then I don't see why 'Art History' and creative art-making cannot be held up to that level, too.]

            It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a blog about Art and what it does/can/will do would eventually have to address “the Banksy effect.” While treatments of the subject of ‘street art’ have glutted the Internet almost to the point of nausea in the last decade, very few of them have dealt with the larger question of subversive humanistic expression (and its shelf life) in a meaningful way.
            In case street art is an unfamiliar concept, let me briefly contextualize this discussion. The term ‘street art’ technically refers to a form of graffiti, though it also simultaneously attempts to distinguish itself from ‘traditional’ graffiti that, for most people, connotes juvenile vandalism or hints of gang affiliation. Ironically, ‘traditional’ graffiti actually dates back to cultures like ancient Rome, and literally includes any drawing or writing that was scratched into a wall or other surface. It was also a technique for decorating pottery. In any case, street art is a style of graffiti that generally has a political, aesthetic, or cultural message of some kind, and the (anonymous) person known as ‘Banksy’ is currently the most popular figure of the movement. His paintings are authenticated by their shared characteristics, most notably the stencils he uses to expedite the spray-painting process (or by the name he signs—he’s evidently not interested in full anonymity).
            Most of Banksy’s Internet supporters argue that he is accomplishing something that is crucial to our understanding of ourselves as a society—i.e. dissent. The idea that he is making necessary cultural comment is not, however, an entirely contestable argument. Take his series done prior to the 2012 Olympics, for instance. The set featured, among other things, a stencil of a javelin-thrower preparing to hurl a missile instead of a javelin, which everyone has since agreed was a dig at the surface-to-air missiles that were installed on residential buildings in London. In fact, it is obvious from the variety and locations of his work that Banksy has a knack for seizing these opportunities in such a way as to consistently make pointed and relevant comments on current world affairs. Simply put, his work makes a lot of people and institutions uncomfortable.
Except when it doesn’t. Banksy’s Internet detractors have delighted themselves in recent commentaries by gesturing to his gallery exhibitions and the sales of his paintings (to celebrities for exorbitant prices) as the classic example of a subversive artist ‘selling out.’
I would argue that neither of these issues is really at stake here, though the former is perhaps a clue to the larger problems of the 'Banksy effect.’ When Banksy began his career, he was entering into a very specific legacy that had originated in a French artist called “Blek le Rat,” who popularized the stenciling method as well as the rat-based imagery in graffiti. The real key to the ‘Banksy effect,’ and to the future of Banksy’s humanistic work, lies in the parallel trajectories he and Blek le Rat share. Blek—whose real name was revealed to be Xavier Prou when he was caught and tried for vandalism in the early 90s—is now an old man who does book signings and gallery openings. There is no subversive quality left to his art; he and his rats have passed from counter-culture to culture, and people no longer feel challenged by his work—they merely want to possess it. One can already see Banksy following this path. I have no quarrel with his desire to make his art personally lucrative. There is something to be said for a culture that is learning to prize his graffiti as an area of humanistic expression with heavy economic value. The problem is that the rise in its economic value is directly related to the disappearance of any other value it had.
         When I was at UCLA a few years ago, Banksy came to Westwood. He stenciled an original piece on the back of a building, and the first person to see it took a photo of themselves standing next to it and posted it on Facebook. When the city talked about painting over the wall, a Facebook group exploded into existence with hundreds of college students furiously demanding that we save the Banksy piece from the evil, censoring regime. What only a few quiet voices mentioned was that it is in the nature of graffiti to be transient, and that it loses its ability to challenge society when it gets folded into it. ‘The Banksy effect’ commonly refers to the street artists who have come to fame via Banksy’s influence—I would argue that it more aptly refers to the loss of subversive potential that occurs when art (or Art) is co-opted by mainstream culture as a mere aesthetic or economic object.
            I think this also broadly true of the humanities disciplines as a whole. Notice that I am not suggesting that humanistic efforts lose all value when adopted by the very culture they propose to challenge. I am, in a roundabout way, trying to point out that the argument for Banksy’s revolutionary value is fundamentally narrow, and thus flawed. If we only place value on humanistic disciplines because they say something about society, because they voice dissent with the status quo, or because they are possible rallying sites for rebellion, we strip them of all value they have beyond that temporary act. It is not unusual for the ‘Banksy effect’ to happen in the life span of any Art that has, at one time, defied what we believe about ourselves, but if we assume that the humanities are only as good as their challenge to society, we’re committing them to a terminal existence. They have to be more than just mutinous if we want to argue that they’re “useful.”

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