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O Banksy, Wherefore Art Thou Banksy?

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October 22, 2014
Bojan Marić was born in 1986. He had studied at the University of Belgrade – Faculty of Political Sciences (Department for International Studies and Department for Cultural Studies). He is a teaching assistant on the courses Cultural Studies and Culture and Social Structure. He takes part in activities within the Center for Cultural Studies in Belgrade, such as project management, organization of cultural events and academic conferences. Currently, he is working on his Master thesis within the field of Philosophy of Culture. His favourite urban artists are Vhils, Saber, My Dog Sighs and MadC. Contact Bojan Maric via bojan.maric@widewalls.ch

He has definitely become part of the global popular culture. Apart from this, there are professionals who claim he will become a significant part of art history textbooks. Finally, the art market is showing that there are buyers for Banksy’s artwork, although the pieces from the New York residency haven’t been selling well (read more in No Sale for Banksy’s New York Pieces). Be that as it may, it is certain that Banksy has already cemented his place in the history of street art. However, after the New York residence, we have been reading and talking a lot about the future of Banksy’s endeavors (read our engaging article on this topic, titled Dusk Over Banksy). As soon as one might think to oneself that Banksy is nowhere to be found, the artist emerges. So, here we are, at it again – talking about Banksy. We are asking ourselves what is the meaning of the new artwork and vandalism pointed at it, about an article which stirred the digital community and, yet again, some old questions

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Banksy, artwork, Better Out Than In (photo courtesy banksy.co.uk)

Hypnotized by Identity

If one thing has become (even more) clear, when for a brief moment we all thought that there is a face and a name behind the famous Banksy, it is the realization that we are (still) more infatuated with the notion of the artist’s identity than his practice. Of course, one does not go without the other when it comes to the Bristol artist. After all, Banksy is not the only one. Hidden identity, apart from the significance of avoiding the law, has a deeper meaning. It is a statement of steering attention toward the art itself. One can argue, of course, that, with Banksy, things have gone “a bit far” and that the opposite is true – part of the public is so hypnotized by the story of a man’s personality, that it is focusing solely on this discourse, and not the art itself. However, nothing is simple when it comes to Banksy. Many deeply believe that notions of hype and hoax, combined with the secret identity, actually form the aesthetics of Banksy’s artwork. This is reflected on so many levels in the publicly and critically acclaimed Exit Through the Gift Shop

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Banksy, artwork (photo courtesy banksy.co.uk)

Primordial Hoax

When Exit Through the Gift Shop hit the theaters, the public got a glimpse of the world of street art, saw a personal story of transformation and a socio-cultural commentary of contemporaneity. However, the genre’s devotees, as well as Banksy admirers started dividing in two distinct groups of people – on the one hand, it was said that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax (at least the part when the “building” of Mr. Brainwash begins) and, on the other, people were arguing that the film is powerful due to its sincerity… However, this is what’s intriguing – the mythological connotations which were set in motion when the film was released, continue to grow and are becoming more and more intricate. One does not have to think long and hard to realize that Exit Through The Gift Shop is a modern-day mythological discourse. In the world of street art it is taking a form of an eschatological myth. The question is – does this represent a “problem”?

O Banksy, wherefore art thou Banksy?
Banksy, Art Buff (photo courtesy banksy.co.uk)
  • Girl-With-the-Pierced-Eardrum-photo-courtesy-banksy-co-uk

Arrest, Birds of a Feather and Pierced Eardrum

It has been a while since the digital community of street art fans and enthusiasts, but also the wider audience on social media, received word that the famous street artist was arrested and his identity revealed. Although it may have seemed, for only a brief moment, that this could be true (and we have to underline the words “for only a brief moment”), it soon became very clear that there were serious “holes” in the story – from citing the news “from BBC” to the humorous photoshopped image from an Exit Through the Gift Shop printscreen, to name only a couple of instances. But, the most interesting thing was to see what the boards and forums were saying during those first hours when the article of the alleged arrest went viral – there seemed to be a great divide in the internet community. Namely, two fronts of discussion were visible. On the one hand, people were divided in groups of Banksy admirers and Banksy “haters.” However, it was much more interesting to see the other front: it concerned the establishment/anti-establishment line, and took upon a form of a discussion of the destiny of street art. In the meantime, Banksy was free and creating – he continued to produce his signature works and, surely, more of them are coming in the future…

Girl With the Pierced Eardrum vandalized (photo courtesy bbc.com)

Birds of a Feather and Pierced Eardrum

The three pieces by Banksy, which have appeared in the public space after the whole “arresting” incident, almost perfectly echoed the story of Banksy and the undying hype over the alleged arrest. It can be said, arguably, that this is the “classic” Banksy – in the sense of the creative expression: Birds of a Feather are something that we have learned to love about Banksy’s artwork – direct political commentary, meticulously designed stencil and situated in the right cultural context (apart from tourism, Clacton-on-Sea is know for its ongoing local political debates on immigration issues). The artwork has been destroyed with a swipe of paint, indicating that it had had an impact and achieved the desired effect. On the other hand, the reasons for destroying the new artwork Girl With a Pierced Eardrum remains unknown in the time of the publishing of this text. However, it is certain that the work has an aura of “good old Banksy”, referring to the art world and finding its place in the world and in the artist’s hometown of Bristol. Finally, the significance of Banksy’s Art Buff seems to be one of the dualities mentioned earlier – the piece had been protected by a Plexiglas “cover” and vandalized with a spraypainted penis. Taking everything into consideration, this don’t seem to be much different from the earlier period, at least when we are talking about public opinion – it’s always a love/hate kind of relationship when it comes to Banksy, isn’t it?

Banksy, Birds of a Feather (photo courtesy banksy.co.uk)
Birds of a Feather painted over (photo courtesy Eastnews)

So, Who is Banksy Really?

He is Huckleberry Finn. He is Neo. He is the Doctor. He is Tyler Durden. He is Batman… He is Keiser Soze! He is the focal point around which a mythological narrative is built. But, if the divides resonating from years ago are telling us something, it is that we need to point our focus back on the art. After all, many of you, myself included, have surely felt some type of reaction combining disappointment and sadness. I wasn’t unnerved by the fact that the police did something unnecessary (which it does with programs of graffiti removal), nor have I been happy to know who Banksy really is (which I actually want to know), but felt an emptiness of sorts in one brief moment. And now I know why – the endless field of possibilities of a myth seemed to have vanished, my story had been taken away from me… Be that as it may, Banksy’s artwork, Exit Through the Gift Shop included, owes its gravitas in being a note on the nature of contemporary society and the role of art within it – notions of hoax or sincerity, myth or truth, in this regard, are irrelevant…

Banksy, Art Buff, with plexiglass and vandalized with spray paint (photo courtesy highsnobiety.com)