A few months ago, I found myself back in the Midwest, spending the evening on the patio of a once frequented bar, chatting with some old friends, enjoying the downtown hustle, when someone pointed out a small plastic figure that had been stationed on the corner of the roof of the building opposite us. The image was odd but familiar: a bright orange silhouette of a man in a fedora, arms at his back, seeming to survey the scene unfolding below. “What is it?” someone asked. As I tried to recall where I had seen the image before another person loudly declared, “It’s a Banksy, you idiot!” It wasn’t a Banksy, as it turns out, but the work of a local imitator (whose name I won’t mention, less it be misconstrued as a plug.) This seemed incidental though, because in its likeness it had achieved the same effect, and it had reached this modest Ontario town south of the Detroit River.
Originally a curiosity in England, Banksy has become one of the most recognizable and talked about artists since the millennium––no longer reserved to the genre he is most readily associated with: graffiti. His real name, place of birth and whereabouts at any one time remain unknown. It’s believed that he was born in Bristol and involved in the city’s underground drum and bass scene in the early 90s, along with bands like Massive Attack and Portishead. Because of the vagaries surrounding his identity, the critical attention that has been given to his work in recent years has often been mired in embroidered gossip and aimless speculation. Praise from numerous Hollywood celebrities has increased his notoriety in the mainstream, and on a few occasions his pieces have been stolen or sawn out of brick and sold at auction for as much as six figures.
The fever seemed to reach its apotheosis two years ago, in 2013, when the artist revealed he would be holding residence in New York City for the month of October––an announcement that had people wandering the streets with cellphone cameras ready in hand and hopping on trains in the middle of the night to catch sight of his work before it was removed or destroyed. This excitement was reprised yet again at the end of this summer, when tickets for the grand opening of his latest project, “Dismaland” (advertised as “a festival of art, amusements, and entry-level anarchism”) sold out within a matter of hours. The “Bemusement Park,” which was located in the small seaside town of Weston-super-Mare in England, contained, among other things: a blighted castle as its centerpiece, a sculpture of Cinderella strewn across her toppled coach, surrounded by paparazzi, a group of morose-looking staff members and balloons that read, “I AM AN IMBECILE.”
Against the leviathan of the culture industry, Banksy’s work seeks to counterpose an art world in which nothing is relieved of the need for consumption and commodification. A self-stylized dissident and anti-corporate misfit, he is often cited as a model of resistance to the spirit of late-capitalism. Of course, it would be impossible for any artist to maintain, without irony, such a reputation and also experience commercial success. Indeed, as the rapturous opening of Dismaland illustrates, this irony is now at the very heart of Banksy’s status, an irony that his champions seem largely unaware of, or else simply unwilling to admit.
Graffiti, and the street art movement that grew out of it, has always had an intrinsic relationship to the strategy of “rerouting”––by virtue of the fact that it is created largely out of existing space, and repurposes, or reshapes the attention previously given to that space. Banksy has managed, quite remarkably, to become one of the most significant heirs to this genre of image diversion. While some of the artists associated with the movement, like Shepard Fairey and Invader, made use of this tactic through ambiguous, niche imagery (Fairey first became known for reproducing the image of Andre the Giant’s face, and Invader for characters from 80s video games) others, like Above and Banksy have gained notoriety through the use of overt political commentary.
Naturally, Banksy’s work is inherently bound to questions regarding the production of art in relation to power––where that power lies, where its cracks are, and how it can be undermined. As a draftsman, his work bears an obvious resemblance to Parisian graffiti artist Blek le Rat, and his penchant for popular figures is derivatively Warholian. Genre is more difficult to observe. Banksy is widely regarded as a graffiti artist, though he works predominantly with stencils, (and there are some members of the graffiti community who debate whether or not this makes him an authentic member of the club.) He is also known for producing sculptures and the occasional silkscreen.
There is also the 2010 documentary attributed to him, Exit Through the Gift Shop––about the explosive success of street artist Mr. Brainwash, AKA Thierry Guetta, an epigone of Banksy and his contemporaries. In fact, there is a theory that Mr. Brainwash is really an elaborate project of Banksy’s, designed to reveal how the promotional machine of media can be used to establish a perceived value of art, and how flimsy and uninformed the public’s perception of such art truly is. The contagion of conspiracies like this, together with the mystique built around his identity, has made Banksy’s very existence into a kind of performance piece.
Indeed, speculations like this have allowed Banksy, not as an artist, but as a subject, to become something of a cultural hobbyhorse––frequently cited as an innovative force in the art world, but ultimately too embalmed in irony and conjecture to nail down with any kind of confidence. This, in turn, has created a climate of pathological distrust, in which everything is a potential prank. When the Dismaland site crashed as a result of traffic shortly after tickets went on sale, people assumed it was a put on, part of the joke. At a point this loses its fun and the whole thing starts to feel vertiginous.
Unlike some street artists, such as Shepard Fairey and KAWS, whom have either collaborated with the mainstream or joined it directly (Fairey being the founder of OBEY clothing), Banksy has managed to remain fairly impervious to the institutionalization of his aesthetic. There are some exceptions to this. With endorsement, he provided artwork for the Blur album Think Tank, and an opening couch-gag for The Simpsons. That his work has resisted commodification entirely is only a half-truth. Much of his work now appears on t-shirts, prints, and in books cleanly designed for coffee tables, albeit without his permission. That such reproductions do exist, however, serves to illustrate how the productive forces his work seeks to defy will always be there to outrace him. Indeed, Banksy has had to pace this irony with his own brand of shtick just to keep up. During his month in New York, he set up a stall in Central Park where real canvases of original work were sold for sixties dollars a piece, mocking the hundreds of thousands they now go for at private auction.
In the age of mechanical reproduction––where, as Walter Benjamin reminds us, the “auras” of individual works of art have faded under an industrial model––that Banksy’s work binds itself to place and is not designed for ubiquitous consumption is a virtue that should be observed. But in the era of the internet this raises an obvious paradox: since graffiti is physically accessible only to few and for a short time before it is either degraded or removed, the majority of people who see Banksy’s work will do so through some alternative medium, via photos of his pieces, images of images, without ever having seen one in person.
There are things to admire about Banksy’s work––the way it violates and steals back corporate space, the instant recognizability of his pieces and the geopolitical aspect they often assume. There is also the way that recurring imagery in his work (like rats and balloons, for example) despite appearing to have no obvious significance, gather credibility and authority over time through repetition and visibility, like a set of golden arches or a cleanly carved apple. On this frontier, street artists like Banksy have successfully tapped into the central logic of brand culture and exposed its essential arbitrariness.
The traits for which he is most celebrated though, as a “provocateur,” an outsider to the industry, an anarchist and anti-capitalist, are continuously overstated and myopically claimed. Any form of art that requires breaking the law in order to carry out could be said, in a strict, legal sense, to promote anarchy, certainly. As for the work itself, it exists firmly within a tradition of borrowed iconography and readymade sloganeering. A few, more notable examples of this are: the image of Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction wielding Warhol bananas in place of hand guns; a little girl morosely holding a balloon under the Sex Pistols’ lyric “No Future”; and a piece that appeared on the side of a building near Oxford Circus in 2008 that read: “ONE NATION UNDER CCTV.”
Sometimes his pieces are bewilderingly mixed and absurdly hyperbolic, like one titled “Napalm” (2004) in which Roland McDonald and Mickey Mouse are depicted gleefully astride Kim Phuc, the naked child from Nick Ut’s famous photograph of a group of Vietnamese children running down a highway after being sprayed with napalm. Obvious even to someone of “entry level anarchism” is the utter want of mordancy or cleverness that we come to expect of good satire, as well as the absence of any enthusiasm or profundity. His most recent target is even more obvious. Behold, instead of Disney Land, we have Dismaland.
The appeal of a place like Dismaland is essentially Saturnalian. It comes to us as a stylized inversion of our world, a carnival that we go to in order to see our ordinary values appropriated and overturned, and which we enter into willingly, seeking from it a kind of comic relief, doing so with the knowledge that it is only a temporary engagement, a farce that we are permitting and free to leave at any time. Like the Roman masters who assumed the place of their slaves for one day, we accept this as a brief visitation to a world we are happy to entertain but don’t actually wish to inhabit. The person who gleefully captures an anti-consumerist sentiment with his or her iPhone would balk at the prospect of having to surrender the phone completely.
Such parodistic methods have often been used to obtain comical effects. But such humor is the result of contradictions within a condition whose existence is taken for granted… contradictions don’t make us laugh. It is thus necessary to envisage a parodic-serious stage where the accumulation of détourned elements, far from aiming to arouse indignation or laughter by alluding to some original work, will express our indifference toward a meaningless and forgotten original, and concern itself with rendering a certain sublimity.
On one hand, the accumulation of détourned elements have reached a level of ubiquity that they have been stripped the edifying effect Debord had dreamed of, while at the same time they have managed to form a language of their own, beyond the parodic, beyond the satirical and the merely subversive. The technique has also succeeded in the sense that it works, having been coopted by advertising and mainstream entertainment, which is to say that it has achieved commercial serious, even if it hasn’t reached the desired moral seriousness.
The dual nature of détourned art (in having to seize commercial tactics in order to subvert them) means that it must be at once populist and visibly heretical. The images that détournement thrives on––now produced en masse by internet amateurs every day––are thus not especially innovative, or new. To the contrary, they are massively popular and consumed casually without the slightest sense that they represent anything subversive or daring. Think again of the video of Brian Williams rapping Snoop Dogg’s lyrics; it belongs to the same class of flippant and cheaply acquired appropriation that Debord knew we already took for granted. For better or worse, Banksy belongs to the very cult of the image that his work is putatively at war with, and has become a successful––however apparently deviant––phenomenon within that culture. In place of the brands he attempts to defy, he has erected a brand of his own, which will continue to exist as long as his enemies do.
The parodic-serious form didn’t evolve along the revolutionary lines that Debord foresaw, which would have resulted in the demolition of a regnant bourgeois aesthetic, thus making older works of art culturally obsolete. Like Duchamp’s mustached Mona Lisa, Banksy’s alteration of Monet’s Water Lilies is not enough to diminish the authority of the original, nor has it dissolved the reverence we feel for the period. To the contrary, Monet is more respected now than he was in his own time. Not only has the parodic-serious style failed in achieving an indifference towards canonical works of art, it has instead had a boomerang effect, wherein this fatigue is now directed squarely at itself. A giant spray paint can wrapped in a Campbell’s Soup label announces itself as tired and diminished in a way that a Monet never could. Indeed, the desired effect would seem to be for you to roll your eyes at something that is already rolling eyes at itself.
This effect has only accelerated with time. How many silkscreen celebrities can be retrofitted with Marilyn Monroe’s lemon colored locks before it no longer matters who the celebrity is? How many times does the image of Ché Guevara have to be reproduced before it loses all meaning? It is a vacuum that Andy Warhol created half a century ago and we are still living in it. I’m reminded of a line from Don DeLillo’s Mao II, in which the character Scott muses: “When there is too much out-of-placeness in the world, nothing is out of place.” In a culture where iconoclastic sentiments are used as marketing tactics and the parodic appropriation of images is not only widespread but massively popular, do projects like Dismaland really represent an unspoiled path of resistance? What we are to call this new dialogue, this meaninglessness beyond meaninglessness, and how we are to approach it and discuss it, is equally perplexing.
It would sound dated to call Banksy anti-bourgeois, though his work is born out of, and retains the same appeal that anti-bourgeois art, like Dadaism and Surrealism, did for the liberal bourgeoisie in the early twentieth century. And the same affinity for self-negation and self-denial has continued: to oppose a culture of consumption by way of images that may carry an “alterative” message is ultimately a reinforcement of consumption and the commodification of the image itself. This leads us to the overwhelming question: can one adopt the tactics of a system as a means of rebellion while still remaining insulated from that system? Against this there are two prongs of attack: Warholian embrace, or vocal defiance. Culture jamming and Adbusters’ infamous “Buy Nothing Day” are examples of defiance. But even the pious rhetoric of Adbusters came to resemble the rebel-based brand culture it opposes when it began marketing its own sweatshop-free, logo-absent Chuck Taylor sneakers. Both are in their own way aggravations of the trap Michel Foucault saw for alternative systems of power, which inevitably reproduce the very traits they attempt to escape.
Dismaland, like all of Banksy’s work, belongs to what Foucault called discursive régimes: dialogues, which, though they may express deviance, still use the vocabulary of the existing power, and are alternative only in a rhetorical capacity. Our readiness to claim authenticity and seek out artists who represent a modicum of resistance shouldn’t be discouraged, though in an era when responding to images with more images looks like a dead end, and any shred of popularity is viewed as a compromise, these claims seem to be nigh impossible. If an act of vandalism that succeeds is immediately transformed into an advertisement, then it may be that graffiti’s basic criminality is its only remaining claim to purity.
This conversation, whether we like it or not, is at the very heart of Banksy’s success––a success based on the necessary illusion that we can still defy the order to which we solidly belong, which requires a degree of self-condescension in order to sustain itself, less we collapse in total defeat. Banksy’s work appeals to us precisely because it condescends to us for our participation, and we go in search of it seeking enjoyment in a self-condescending fashion. The “Bemusement Park” that is Dismaland is the latest monument to this sensibility; a chance to feel, if only for an afternoon, like we know something that other people don’t, to get a joke that the rest of the flock is missing out on, while all the time knowing secretly that the joke is firmly on us.
A good posture to keep, it seems, is one where we acknowledge our complicity in this phenomenon and hold ourselves accountable for it. In 1942, Picasso was visited at his studio in Nazi-occupied Paris by a Gestapo officer who had been sent there to establish “friendly” terms with the artist, at a time when Hitler had already denounced cubism as degenerate and copies of the genius’s work were being stolen and burned across Europe in ceremonial ritual. The officer, having noticed a copy of “Guernica” that had been hanging on the wall, asked him, “Did you do that?” To which Picasso responded, “No sir, you did.”
We would do well to remember this.
Jared Marcel Pollen lives in New York City. He has recently completed work on his first novel.