Many of the most potent and popular public dissenters of our day and age are humorists. Be it The Onion and Christopher Hitchens in print, Michael Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen in film, Chris Rock and Louis Black on the comedy stage, or Jon Stewart and Bill Maher on the TV screen, these subversives wit’ attitude exploit the permission their humor affords them to variously prod and provoke us until we laugh into enlightenment—or at least into recognition of social wrongs.
Within the visual arts, public rebellion has its most populist face in the contemporary street art movement: in the graffiti tags rooted in the hip-hop era, or in the more sophisticated art vandalism of recent years. The current hero of street art is Banksy, an anonymous crusader who conducts his reign of terror on walls, bridges, and buildings around the world armed only with a spray can, stencils, and an attitude of cool, calculating wit.
Banksy’s “hits” over the last decade reveal an artist using bare wit in bearing witness to the inequities, injustices, and exploitations of the modern world. Like Aristophanes in Ancient Greece, Mark Twain in 19th century America, or Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, Banksy’s visual humor chastises power in its multiple manifestations by hauling it before the court of public opinion for a well-deserved flogging. Few artists can match Banksy’s Robin Hood-like mystique and rag-on-the-rich populism, though precedents do exist within the fine arts for his type of institutional spray-downs and piss-taking. Echoes of Banksy’s irreverent art parodies can be found in the work of Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp, while the political slogans and subvertising gestures the Situationists left on the streets of Paris in 1968 are comparable to Banksy’s similarly pithy public epigrams and ad-busting. More recently, a new generation of defiant street and print subvertisers has arisen, driven by the same commitment Banksy has to deconstructing corporate control, power, and manipulation.
Some of Banksy’s inspirations can be traced back to Bristol, England, his home-town and a long-time haven for all kinds of artistic subversion. The bus boycott of 1963 in the African-Caribbean St. Pauls district, followed by the urban riots there in 1980, did much to radicalize the local youth culture then and since. Graffiti subsequently became integral to the so-called “Bristol underground scene”, with a young Banksy (alongside peers like Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja) becoming one of its more active spray can activists. Banksy was no doubt also politicized by the city’s local independent media, long renowned for its anarchistic leanings. The Bristolian news sheet contains the mast-head “Smiter of the High and Mighty”, while The Bristle paper boasts “Fighting talk for Bristol and the South-West” and features many examples of subvertising illustrations.
Banksy has taken this cultural inheritance, attitude, and wit, and transported it to unsuspecting cities the world over. Moreover, with the recent success and critical acclaim of his mockumentary movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the artist has taken the Bristol scene decidedly over-ground while provoking debates about the inherent elitism of the art world and the role of street art as a potentially democratizing corrective, not only to the art establishment, but also against the private and state-assigned rulers of our public spaces.
At the core of Banksy’s irritant activism is the humor he infuses into his visual commentary. While this wit has been recognized by critics and observers, its variety, purposes, and populist appeal have gone largely under-regarded and under-appreciated. Maybe a piece of funny street art will not change the world, but perhaps it might at least, as Banksy notes, “make somebody smile while they’re having a piss” (WikiQuote.org). And maybe that’s not a bad starting point.
Parody, with its inter-textual allusions, critical “quotations”, and tongue-in-cheek referencing, is the quintessential post-modern expression of our times. Within the visual arts it has been a ubiquitous feature of the avant-garde, and, as Thierry Guetta showed us in Exit Through the Gift Shop, often a trendy short-cut for pretenders, incompetents, and wanna-be’s. Like Guetta’s Warhol updates or Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” (“Mona Lisa” with a goatee and moustache), Banksy corrupts the classics, re-envisioning them in the contexts of modern society. His Mona Lisa moons the viewer, while his version of Monet’s idyllic Water Lily Pond has been spoiled by urban trash and an abandoned shopping cart.
One particularly ambitious modification of a masterpiece is The Drinker, Banksy’s statue based on Rodin’s “The Thinker” that he “donated” to a side-walk off Shaftesbury Avenue in London’s bustling West End. Banksy’s version features the once-pensive icon with a traffic cone resting on his head. Such one-trick humor obviously plays for laughs more than critique, however, more-often-than-not his parodies channel subversive undercurrents.
Banksy’s adaptation of Nick Ut’s famous photograph of a naked and crying young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm bombing has the original’s accompanying cousin and brother replaced with Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald. Here, the implication of the role of corporations in international foreign affairs is disturbing enough, though no more than the simultaneous suggestion that we ourselves are so wrapped up in the escapist entertainment western culture feeds and foists upon its citizens that they become numb and distracted from the harsh realities their nations are sometimes responsible for.