Graffiti has served as the humble origins for many well-known artists. American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, famed for a prolific neo-expressionist career, used the epithet SAMO© to tag the streets of the Bowery with quick epigrams: SAMO© as an end 2 the neon fantasy called life, SAMO© 4 the so-called avant-garde. His contemporary, Keith Haring, began by drawing murals of vibrating dogs in subway stations before becoming a significant contributor to Pop Art. Street artists like Blek le Rat and JR used their work in public spaces to springboard out of obscurity, and many a hopeful graffitist dreams of following suit.
And then there’s Banksy, the most famous anonymous street artist in the world, a curious oxymoron.
The relationship between the elusive street artist, known to the world only by his moniker, Banksy, and the so-called art world is essentially a kindergarten romance. He pulls on her pigtails in convincing contempt, but blushes at the attention his antics attract. A 2004 stunt where a disguised Banksy visited the Metropolitan Museum in New York to covertly hang up his own painting (seen in his Oscar-nominated 2011 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop) is one of many instances where the graffitist derived pleasure from flipping off the art establishment. He tried—and briefly succeeded—to bring street art to a venue where it wasn’t welcome. Almost a decade later, he returns to the same city to do the opposite, bringing his now renowned work back to the street.
The artist’s latest endeavor, entitled Better Out Than In, is a self-described one-month residency on the streets of New York. It results from Banksy’s frustration at his sudden commercial success and the accompanying accusations of his mercenary intentions; what seems to be an urgent need to return to his clandestine, concrete roots. “I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached,” Banksy commented in a recent interview with the Village Voice about his latest endeavor. “There’s no gallery show or book or film. It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.”
Known for his politically-charged stenciling, Banksy began with a cult following in the early 2000s but soon caught the interest of the art world he scorned. Galleries and auction houses began to lap up the dark humor that was often at their expense, and Banksy, ever the troll, used this love-hate relationship to fuel his fire—after his painting “Space Girl and Bird” sold for a then-record $575,000 in 2007, Banksy responded with a picture depicting an auction crowd bidding on a canvas that read “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.” And yet he’s considered responsible for the sudden propulsion of street art—historically considered a delinquent practice—as its own category in the contemporary art scene. Dubbed the “Banksy effect” by CNN journalist Max Foster, work that would otherwise be shrugged off as a witty instance of vandalism can now be a validated—and pricey—Work Of Art. And in a very literal sabotage of street art’s in situ spirit, gallerists eager to cash in on the trending genre have extracted and put on the market parts of walls, tanks, and houses that Banksy had used as his canvas.
But the entrance of now high-value street art into the glamorous art world is inherently problematic. “Commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist. We’re not supposed to be embraced in that way,” Banksy told the Voice. And when this embrace comes with enormous profits, it’s easy to understand why many dismiss him as a sellout (or as street artists Trustocorp put it, “citibanksy”). Despite having clarified that he gives a lot of his earnings away and uses the rest to sustain his practice, Banksy seeks to earn back respect from the thousands of anonymous vandals who declare him a nancy. This is the covert message of the project, but this is where it doesn’t quite deliver.
Despite its claims of celebrating the organic quality of the streets, Better Out Than In purposefully draws a lot of attention to itself. The artist regularly updates his Instagram, Facebook page, and website to inform eager audiences of the location and nature of each day’s work. The daily updates have sent New Yorkers and international spectators into complete frenzy: A New York Post headline reads “GET BANKSY! NYPD HUNT ARTIST”; a man sticks a GPS tracker on a truck installation. Art collectors sit dumbfounded as they realize that Banksy set up a Central Park stall on October 12 selling his own work for a mere $60 each, around 200 times below market value. In this moment, Bansky’s stunt comes as a punch in the gut. He reveals a distressing truth, providing proof that the value of art in the contemporary world is, in truth, entirely dependent on endorsement—Sotheby’s versus sidewalk—over inherent quality.
So every day, a new piece pops up in one of the five boroughs of New York. Many of them are typical Banksy: culturally allusive, tongue-in-cheek. October 4, a modified graffiti that reads “Occupy! The Musical.” October 6, a video clip of insurgents shooting down Dumbo the flying elephant. October 18, a makeshift “gallery for the 99 percent” smack in the middle of Manhattan’s art district displaying collaborative paintings with Brazilian graffitists Os Gêmeos. Several of the works poke fun at museum culture, accompanied by sound bites (accessed via the artist’s website) that mock the didacticism of exhibition audio guides. October 3, a stencil of a dog peeing on a fire hydrant comes with commentary that prompts, “But look again and what do you see? That’s right, a structural recontextualizing of the juxtaposition between form and surface. Welcome to the art world.”
But despite its mockery of galleries and their affectations, Better Out Than In can’t seem to shake the cooties from Banksy’s ambivalent love affair with the art world, because everything he touches generates instant hype. He has become exempt from—and now desires—the natural erasure of the street that other graffitists receive, treatment that renders the painting over or fading away of graffiti inevitable. And still, some don’t put it past him to be the mastermind behind the dog piss and crude scribbles that have defaced his own work, perhaps in an attempt to reinforce its ephemeral quality.
The world is riled up by the audacity of this month-long spectacle, and a lot of this fascination has to do with the question mark of a man behind the whole thing. As a person he remains literally anonymous, but as an artist Banksy depends on his anonymity to sustain his fans’ interest. He protects his mythical origins because they are an essential part of his work and the hysteria around it. Little is known about him, giving him the unique position of being able to lampoon just about everything—including us—without suffering the consequences. And though Banksy’s month-long project is an attempt to cancel out his cashed-out reputation, it seems to be unwilling to let go of the fame and intrigue his success entails. The Banksian dilemma of proving his work genuine while making sure someone is around to hear the proverbial tree fall in the forest that is New York City necessitates the self-generated hype, but is the ultimate blow to his intention. The irony of this is not lost on the artist. “When graffiti isn’t criminal, it loses most of its innocence,” he told the Voice.
As Better Out Than In approaches its final days, it is easy to understand why many consider Banksy a twisted genius. He has opinions and he has a cheeky way of getting them across. The project clearly succeeds in quality, as one would expect from an artist with consistently exceptional work. But in terms of returning to the original, priceless venue of street art, the project finds itself victim to its own dramatic presence. The paradox that plagues urban art’s entry into the contemporary art scene is that once a work becomes isolated for being good, it loses its fundamental quality—the subtlety of its immersion in a dynamic environment.
In his 2005 book Wall and Piece, Banksy remarked, “sometimes I feel so sick at the state of the world I can’t even finish my second apple pie.” He probably never realized how accurate this would be. The one-month residency is a superb display of the strengths and limits of street art and what art in general means today, but it also demonstrates the delicate nature of its creator’s success. The world watches with delight as Banksy unveils his brazen handiwork, but the space he presents it in now seems contrived. It’s subject to the censure of Mayor Bloomberg and the excited tweets of aficionados and the fervent news coverage and the purposeful spraying of young graffitists, but not the organic treatment of the street. Banksy asks his audience to leave the galleries and museums to return to the sacred space of his profession, but the irony of it all is that he asks them to exit through the gift shop.
On October 2, Banksy tagged a garage door in Chelsea. “THIS IS MY NEW YORK ACCENT” he wrote in stylized graffiti script. “…normally I write like this,” it said beneath in neat cursive. A few hours later, two large words are spray painted over it in deep red lettering: “SO WHAT?”
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