Banksy’s Bare Wit-ness

[20 March 2011]

By Iain Ellis

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.

cover art

Exit Through the Gift Shop

(US DVD: 8 Mar 2011)

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
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.

Satire, Surrealistic Whimsy, Pranks & Self-Deprecation

Related to his more politicized parodies are Banksy’s satirical stabs at various institutions of power and authority.  Here, his familiar recurrent motifs—policemen, soldiers, rats—are deployed to expose abuses and to deride any and all infringements upon fundamental human rights.  Invasion of privacy has become a pressing issue of the post-9/11 world, and in Britain the tensions between security concerns and liberty have become particularly pronounced as CCTV cameras come to dominate the national landscape.  In response, Banksy’s “One Nation Under CCTV” graffiti campaign has at least awoken—if not alarmed—the slumbering public to such creeping intrusions of state scrutiny.  As so often with socio-political satire, Banksy here incriminates us as enablers as much as he does the power structures we allow to impose upon us; despite the CCTV cameras hovering over our every move, his ironic counter-slogan suggests that we need to be vigilant to the means by which these watchful eyes might be used to keep us “under”.

One of Banksy’s more controversial—and dangerous—exercises in political satire occurred in 2005 when he traveled to what he called “the ultimate holiday destination for graffiti writers”:  the 425-mile long security barrier separating Israel from Palestine, a wall the UN has declared illegal.  There, under the intimidating scrutiny of nearby armed soldiers, the artist stenciled on the wall nine “holiday snaps”.  With a tone of critical irony, these pictures envision a tropical or Alpine paradise waiting on the other side of the wall and unavailable to the Palestinians.  Poignant and sad as much as anger-evoking, one image portrays children haplessly looking upwards, their imaginations the only vehicles able to reach the idyllic destinations preserved on the other side.  Bringing “free speech and bad art” to “the world’s most invasive and degrading structure” was how Banksy later described his West Bank artistic mission.

cover art

Wall and Piece

Banksy

(Random House; US: Apr 2007)

Concern over issues of war, capitalism, and the environment has taken Banksy far from his Bristol roots in recent years.  In 2008 he marked the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, assessing the state of the clean-up operation through a series of “hits” on the abandoned houses of New Orleans, as well as on the new levee wall that he called “the best painting surface in the state of Louisiana”.  A year later he traveled to Copenhagen where he ridiculed the do-nothing UN climate conference with four murals, one featuring the graffiti’d phrase “I Don’t Believe in Global Warming” disappearing below a water line.

A comic crusader for moral justice, Banksy has taken on the role of an artistic missionary spreading his satirical gospel around the world.  His ironic gestures may be bereft of proposed solutions to the monumental problems he addresses, but his bare-boned images of humanistic empathy, expressed with an outrage tempered by black humor, at least force our attention to the ultimate need for populist action.

Surrealistic Whimsy
As the West Bank pictures attest, Banksy’s visual critiques are as much about what might be and should be as about what is.  Though much of his satirical work captures the raw and the real, his fascination with the scope of the imagination, particularly via the perspective of a child, has taken the artist into some contrastingly surreal and whimsical fields of visual humor.  These surrealistic pictures are essentially abstract expressions of desires for freedom and liberation, themes that pervade all of his work.  Landing on walls around the world, Banksy’s “child” motif reflects his appreciation for the power of emotional appeals often quite different from the anger and outrage called upon by his satire.  The image of a small child in a third world country dragging a rickshaw carrying an overweight (and presumably) American couple is particularly harrowing in its dark humor. These tourists, presented in vibrant color to contrast with the otherwise black and white world, are shown to be oblivious to the hardships of the child—of his current arduous labor and his broader existence—as they smile indulgently while snapping cell phone photos of each other. 

Perhaps more surreal is the series of pictures showing a young girl drifting skywards with balloons in hand.  An ironically sad reflection on the futile hopes and dreams of children from unfortunately fated circumstances, this image is particularly heartrending when seen displayed on the Israeli security wall.  At the more light-hearted end of his child series, Banksy’s child-with-soldier stencil showcases the incongruity humor found at the heart of surrealism.  The image of a child patting down a (suspect?) soldier is a particularly amusing fantasy of power and authority inversion.

As with the child icons, Banksy often uses animals as symbols to evoke pathos in observers.  A few years back he recreated a whole fake animal store in New York City, displaying such whimsical items as fish sticks in a goldfish bowl, a rabbit giving itself a manicure, and animatronics McNuggets.  While most of the attendant crowds were drawn in by the wacky humor, they were also challenged by the personification strategies used to re-evaluate human relationships with, sympathies for, and treatment of the animal world.  More symbolic, if equally stark and simple, was the live painted elephant that Banksy “installed” at his inner-city L.A. opening, a surreal exploit suggesting little more, it seems, than that the public needs to be more attuned to the serious issues that surround them (hence the elephant in the room!).  A broad brushstroke for an artist, the lack of depth and contemplative substance in such gestures has led some art critics to reject Banksy’s work as art-less.  The “is it art?” debate is beyond the purview of this piece; however, as a populist operating in public settings, Banksy is clearly less driven to achieve esoteric complexity than with firing eye-catching visual shots that elicit immediate emotional, sensory, and intellectual reaction.  Even in his most obtuse surrealistic images, that mission is accomplished.

Pranks
Some of the most effective public expressions of subversion and consciousness-raising have arrived in the form of art pranks.  In the late 1960s, the Yippies and the Merry Pranksters used audacious guerrilla theater, art, and happenings to illustrate social issues, incite reactions, and encourage activism—while titillating in the process.  A decade later English punks like the Sex Pistols and Crass continued the politically-inspired prank tradition, while nineties successors like The KLF and The Stuckists turned their pranks more directly at the art world.  The KLF’s anti-modern art reign of terror culminated in 1993 with the band staging an alternative art awards show for “Worst Artist of the Year”.  Candidates included the very same short-list that the official jury of curators had chosen for its own prestigious Turner Prize.  An heir to this subversive tradition, Banksy recently made his feelings known about the unrepresentative Turner committee and its prized artists by spraying “MIND THE CRAP” on the steps of the Tate Modern immediately prior to their awards ceremony.   

Banksy’s pranks have ranged from the dangerous to the illegal to the ingeniously cheeky.  Dangerous was leaving a life-size replica of a Guantanamo Bay detainee at Disneyland in 2006.  Aimed at highlighting our blinkered escapism and our refusal to recognize state-sanctioned atrocities, this gesture brought the famous fun-land to a standstill as homeland security guards went in search of the offending prankster (who by then was playing on the rides).  Illegal was the trickster’s run of spoof £10 pound notes with Princess Diana’s head replacing the Queen’s and a text-head that read “Banksy of England”.  Realizing their distribution might lead to the anonymous hero landing behind bars, Banksy kept most of the counterfeit notes under wraps, though, ironically, the few that did “escape” now sell for over £200 on eBay. 

Banksy’s most celebrated practical joke addressed one of his common go-to targets:  celebrity culture.  In 2006 the release of Paris Hilton’s debut album gave the prankster reason enough to spring into action.  Visiting record stores around the U.K. in clandestine disguise, Banksy proceeded to substitute the sleeves and discs of 500 new Paris CDs with his own custom-crafted alternatives.  The new cover art showed the digitally-altered diva in various states of undress, mouthing such telling inanities as “90% of success is just showing up.”  The discs, too, were remixed, as Danger Mouse went to work highlighting and repeating (ad nauseum) the phrases “Why am I famous?”, “What have I done?”, and “What am I for?”.  The fact that so few of these “brank” CDs were returned by purchasers is perhaps the most hilariously ironic chapter in this whole mischievous saga. 

Self-Deprecation
Particularly appealing in Banksy’s comedic arsenal is his self-effacing nature.  Never one to take himself or his endeavors too seriously, the artist rarely misses an opportunity to implicate himself with the art world’s commercial fleecing practices he captured so pithily in the title of his movie, “exit through the gift shop”.  “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit”, he declared with pictorial irony when his stenciled doodles began flying out of auction rooms for six-figure prices to the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.  One Bristol house daubed with a Banksy “hit” even increased its value when the owner began listing it for sale as “a mural with building attached” rather than vice versa. 

Conceding his unavoidable inability to avoid capitalism’s all-embracing machinations, Banksy has responded, not defensively, but by assuming an endearing persona of self-mockery.  “Sometimes I feel so sick at the state of the world I can’t even finish my second apple pie”, he deadpans in his Wall and Piece book.  “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles.  In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves”, he adds (Wikiquote.org).

Despite his efforts to deflect criticism through self-deprecation, Banksy has reached that point of popular and commercial success whereby accusations of “sell out” are now as predictable as his inevitable institutional recuperation.  Fellow street artists are now emerging from the shadows in droves, jealously charging Banksy with abandoning the streets for the galleries.  Critics, too, anticipating the backlash, have begun to question his authenticity as well as his ideological credibility, connecting the dots from his works (such as his design for Blur’s Think Tank album cover) back to their corporate sources (EMI, in that instance).

Beyond the cynics and the haters, Britain’s “most wanted” art terrorist continues to gain popularity with the general public, surely a healthy development in light of the increasingly exclusive and restrictive trends of the modern art world.  Moreover, the so-called “Banksy effect” is now spawning a new generation of guerrilla artists intent on bearing their own witness and wit, and committed, like their mentor, to reclaiming public spaces from corporate and state control for their own participatory expressions.  Let the populist art revolution begin!

Born in Manchester and raised east of London, Iain Ellis spent his formative years playing, performing, and consuming a heavy diet of punk rock music and football. In 1986, the young man went west to find his dreams in Bowling Green, Ohio. Instead, he picked up a PhD in American Culture Studies, writing his dissertation on 1980s American Punk Culture. In 2000, he traveled further west, settling in Lawrence, Kansas, where he currently teaches English at the University of Kansas and performs in his band The Leotards. You may also enjoy his books, Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists and Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/138253-banksys-bare-wit-ness/