As an artist, Banksy is a failure.
He has confessed as much in his e-mail conversation with the Village Voice. His failure stems from his success. He is popular. His art makes money. These conditions make his life on the margins impossible. Subsequently, he has deprived himself of an authentic voice, his place on the vanguard of social and political critique.
Banksy still has one last refuge: he is anonymous. As a result, he can produce his art on the streets, where he began, without incident. Were he discovered, he would be a celebrity, and he could no longer safely produce graffiti art on the streets of major cities. Banky’s anonymity is, however, a double-edged sword. While it keeps him free to work, it also drives his popularity and success. For him to keep the anonymity requires him to stop working, as he did for the past year, but to remain relevant — to have a voice — he must continue working. Yet, to continue working means to fail, since he will become more popular and successful. Ultimately, he must decide to show his face or to abandon street art altogether.
Such is the life on the margins. Or is it?
Banksy started his art career as a graffiti artist in London, England, during the 00s. He became popular for his use of stencils that commented on politics, consumer culture, and art itself. The graffiti is hardly the kind you would normally find in alleys or on bathroom walls. The art has a detailed yet cartoonish quality. It contrasted innocent, principled children with corrupt adults, or it portrayed working men and women as suffering under the burdens of corporate or political exploitation.
Banksy’s 2010 “Follow Your Dreams//Cancelled,” painted on a wall in Boston’s Chinatown, is a good example. The message is painted in grey and drip-dried, giving it a melancholy and juvenile feel. Next to the message is a stenciled image of a sad, Depression-era man holding a paint brush, bucket, and rolled up paper. Over the message is the word “CANCELLED” in white with red background.
Left ambiguous is the relationship between the man and the conflicting messages. His brush is clean, which means he did not write either the grey or red message. Instead, he is there to paint over both. Banksy enjoys this play among the artist, the worker, and state or corporation institutions, such as such as in “Workers of the World Unite!” from his 2009 Bristol Summer Show. The take-away from works like these is that the victims of institutional coercion — the workers — have to clean up the message left by those using art to provoke class consciousness among those very workers and stimulate them to organize. However, the worker resents the artist, since the artist is a pest, but also depends on the artist to have a job. Institutions have successfully aligned natural allies against each other.
As a street artist, Banksy grew up with other street artists tagging and defacing his work. For the medium, it is part of the fun. All such artists compete against workers to keep their art on the walls. When workers clean up the messages, the only thing that remains is the wall — the artist’s canvas renewed, the worker’s job done — but the clean wall is also the restoration of the institutional barrier that keeps both the artist and the worker out, yet apart from each other. The whole affair is a game institutions win. Worse, for Banksy, he and his work are now inside those walls.
If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Banksy is part of a long stretch of highbrow street artists who have made their way into the art world, and street artists before him have carried the same messages, though with different styles. The most obvious comparison is to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who Andy Warhol discovered in 1980. Basquiat had a different style of art from Banksy. While Banksy has a straightforward style and message, Basquiat was more abstract, often requiring the viewer to linger over choices of color and design. His art was more challenging and showed greater evolution both in choices made and technique.
Basquiat could demand this response, however, because he opted to bring his street art mostly into the museum. Because Banksy still keeps much of his work in the streets, his art must be, well, obvious. It has to have a recognizable style, easily understood message, and subsequently a disposable quality. Once you have seen a Banksy piece, you do not really need to see it again, which is perhaps why he updates the images rather than the message.
The museum comes to Banksy
Banksy has chosen mostly to keep much of his work on the streets because he harbors a sense of the artist on the margins. This reason also explains why Banksy likes building his art into scenery, such as his work this month where he stenciled a beaver next to a fallen sign. To bring such a piece into a museum would require digging up the sign and chiseling out the exterior wall of the building that hosts the painted marmot, and now fans of his work are going to precisely those lengths.
Perhaps even Banksy may have once been surprised that those inside the institutional walls have sought to claim the outsides, too. Rather than sending in the worker to clean up a recent Banksy work in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, the owners have sent in armed guards to protect it. In fact, a crowd of 500 people had gathered around the work to see it when a competing street artist tried to tag over it. The crowd responded by wresting him away from the image and cleaning it up. The old relationship among the wall, the artist, and worker has broken down. If Banksy would not quite come to the museum, the museum will — and has — come to Banksy.
In response, Banksy has used his “residency” in New York this month to have fun with his status, naming the resulting collection in way that underlines his failure: “Better Out Than In.” Since the museum has come to him, he has a toll-free number one may call to hear the “audio tour” of his work, much of which street artists defaced before building owners could hire the necessary guard to protect the work. The tour is “meta” in that it recognizes some of the critiques of his work by simply admitting they are true. For example, this essay mentioned that Banksy repeats the same message in his work and uses the same means for expressing it. His audio tour entry for October 18 admits that Banksy is guilty of the charge. Again, Banksy says he is a failure; what else did you expect?
Banksy defends his success by calling it failure. Were one to charge him with being “too cute” with the defense, he would admit that, also. The conversation between artist and viewer feels like arguing with an entitled child, and Banksy admits this, as well, in two pieces from “Better Out Than In.” What is one to make of this?
The answer has to do with Basquiat again. When Basquiat was producing his art during the early 1980s, he was struggling with depression, addiction, race, sexual identity, and the transition from impoverished anonymity to money and fame. A voice like his had been unheard in the art world before he and other street artists slowly made their way from the vanguard on the streets to the world of high art. Basquiat was a bridge between two very different worlds that lived in the same city. When the two met in Basquiat, the results were something new and unstable, stimulating and sometimes beautiful.
There are no battles to fight
Like Basquiat, Banksy’s message started on the street, but unlike Basquiat his work became fodder for t-shirts on websites like TheChive, known best for its “bro culture,” its theft of front page content from Reddit, and its posting lurid photographs of female fans of the site every Friday. Moreover, the so-called “One Percenters” number among his biggest and earliest fans. Banksy became well-known in America in large part because Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt purchased one of his works for £1 million at a 2007 Lazaridies Gallery auction (fetching a higher price than the Basquiat pieces at the same auction). Nothing Banksy has done is new. He inherited his message. His work did nothing to bridge two worlds. His perspective was welcomed and safe among the people least likely to act on it but most likely to pay tens of dollars to wear it on their apparel and millions of dollars to hang it on their walls.
Basquiat blazed the trail that Banksy has comfortably walked. When Basquiat confronted all the contradictions in his life, he killed himself, yet Banksy lives on. Every second Banksy lives, he fails, and he never could really succeed. His place on the vanguard was an illusion. Others came before and heroically served, and he is subsequently without glory. He speaks not prophetically but retrospectively. There are no battles to fight. No hearts or minds to change. No contradictions to explore. Just an art world that loves his art and its message but feels nothing for action. His only consolation is to persuade and shame the art world into the streets, where he got his start and where life is more real, hence the title of the exhibition “Better Out Than In.”
Does Banksy understand his preferred medium? Unlike when Basquiat crawled the streets, the city of New York is rich and low-crime, a city in which its own residents are tourists. There are fewer and fewer neighborhoods with struggling families, but the city has pulled in many wealthy Gen-X’ers and Millennials from the “creative class” to make it big. Where should the art world go to confront in the reality of the streets? Manhattan? Forget it. The outer boroughs? Have you seen Williamsburg? Banksy has forced some of them out to Queens on the 14th and on the 22nd and released a video from Staten Island on the 19th, which is only dangerous for up-scale Manhattanites who have to share the ferry with people who were once ordinary New Yorkers.
“Better Out Than In” mixes two messages. First, the streets of New York are no different than its museums. The old game between workers, artists, and institutions is over, and the institutions have won. The workers are gone, replaced by the same guards outside who guard museums inside. When the artists write on the walls, they cannot speak to absent workers but only to institutions that have transformed the entire city into an exhibition.
Second, the language of resistance — of the vanguard on the streets leading the way — is the language of the elite. Banky’s adolescent messages reflect the adolescence of his audience. His audience likes the images they believe he paints of them: as childlike idealists fighting against villains, but how do they fight? All they do is scramble from museum piece to museum piece, hoping to see it before guards or rival street artists arrive. It is a game for children, like those in Banky’s art, a treasure hunt for the idle rich.
Two years ago, these same children played another game: Occupy Wall Street. In it, they dressed up like radicals and pretended to resist the institutions which employed members of their families. When it was over, they left a mess for workers to clean up, as they once cleaned up Banksy’s art. It was all a bit of fun (except for a handful of rapes and thefts). These same children now scamper about their city to see the artist who helped inspire Occupy and, in his art and his audio tour, still refers to it. But who remembers Occupy? Where did it go? What did it do?
“Better Out Than In” illustrates not just Banksy’s personal failure but also the failure of all those who turned out in Zuccotti Park: they never meant any of it. It was resistance as recreation, a way to pass the time between classes at Columbia or on their way home from the office. On its own terms, the exhibition is a failure, but as a condemnation of his audience, Banksy could not have done better.