Framing and the upstart challenge


Caught ‘The Art of Banksy’ show with Nada the other day, and for anyone who is interested in modern art, it is very much worth seeing. Banksy is precisely in that most curious spot where pop-culture, politics and the art world meet.

The work represented is not Banksy’s latest, most sharply political stuff, but many of his early iconic works are gathered, and it really was a great treat to see so many of them together, with room to breathe.

The special huge one-off pieces in the show are also quite fantastic. The work titled: “I want to meet my true love for meaningless casual sex” is one of the most righteously disgusted critiques of the self-congratulatory I’ve ever seen – overproof strength – and his junkyard take on the classic Iwo Jima image, which is gigantic (and has been mothballed for years), was absolutely haunting.

What you can see when you take in his works up close, is his exquisite refinement not just of concept, but of meaningful gesture – something his imitators never seem to grasp, let alone exceed.

Famous works like the chilling line of happy faced riot police: “Have a nice day” and this lovely barcode escape print were there – along with trolley hunters, and the notorious Queen Victoria ‘queening’ her lesbian lover.

The show was quite clearly staged not by Banksy himself, but by Steve Lazarides, and the brief video clips he included about their friendship and time together to give the show extra context, were fun and helpful.

One especially excellent notion from Banksy, up on one of the walls (I paraphrase), “The world is full of unsuccessful people with talent. The trick is to get yourself out of the house, before you find too many good reasons to stay in.”

I was also rather fond of, “A can of spray paint and a stencil is good for about a hundred uses. This means that anyone can become locally famous or despised overnight, for about ten pounds.”

There were some lukewarm critiques of the show in the local papers which surprised me – most acting as if it was pretending to be a Banksy event – which it really was not. Couldn’t help wondering how those same critics would have enjoyed being at a show with 200 live rats set loose – (the way Banksy once celebrated one of his authentic openings!).

Anyhow – Lazarides has a point – Banksy’s work is both his outlaw action in it’s creation and installation, and also real art – nor has anyone done more in decades to convince the general public that they too are entitled to adore modern art. Especially stuff that ‘kicks ass’.

Rather sweet that upstart spirit and political critique is a part of almost everything he does. More evidence that abstract expressionism really was a CIA plot, all along (seriously, I only wish I was making that one up). ;o)

The point being that the public never stopped being interested in political art – nor has the art world yet quite come to accept that making millions of people all at once cheer and shake their fist in rebel solidarity, is also art, and artful.

The Lady Di Ten Pound Note was one of the gems of the show – boxes of them were shown in Banksy’s extraordinary film “Exit through the gift shop” (which is highly-recommended, BTW).

I really enjoyed Lazarides obvious glee, when he related how their solicitor advised them that a crime of forgery and defacement on such a scale was without limit in sentence, and without limit also in fine!

Perfect-crime, hah! How many people ever get a chance to pull off a Platonically-perfectly-criminal piece of prank art?

Which reminds me of the funniest Banksy quote in the whole show.

“It’s not so easy being an anonymous social critic in a free democracy.”

Making fun of himself, his own cult, and our incredibly coddled standards, relative to everyone else on earth. So typical of the guy – and yet another reason that I, like so many others, find it easy and fun to keep rooting for this absurdist mystery prankster.

Now, while I’m on the subject – let me add some notes from a related read – “Banksy – the man behind the wall.” And a far less fortunate creator who I adore.

Having been stung by many unauthorized tomes on subjects that had natural appeal (the publishing equivalent of an easy con) I began this book with low expectations – but every page I read, raised them. To begin, the author does not pretend to be cool at all – which is great, because it means he had to ask – and give all sorts of folks around Banksy – both for and against him – a chance to put their best story to a general audience. Had they been explaining themselves to a non-square, half of the info we need to understand their tales would have been unsaid, because his interviewees would have assumed that he (indirectly, we) already knew it!

He talks about the context of Banksy’s emergence – including a community outreach worker who single-handedly turned a community centre in a lousy neighbourhood into a major centre of the international street-art movement. He also talks about street pieces, their location, creation and ultimate fate.

Next he delves into the question of the art market – and while I admire Banksy’s work and sprit a lot, his struggles here raised my respect to new heights. Has he made a lot of money? Yes he absolutely has – but only the tiniest fraction of what he could have made. His priorities really are artistic – and also to keep the new works he does accessible to street viewers and fans. He’s gone to ridiculous lengths to try to make sure his prints are sold directly to art-loving people in the working class, and not middlemen and flip-artists – not an easy battle – and one he never wins as much as he’d like.

I think there’s also a bigger point to be made here, about public meaning and after-marketing. Banksy is an incredibly sophisticated thinker (may one day be recognized mostly as a popular philosopher) – who has been considering the interaction of media, meaning and celebrity – even the power of curiosity itself – in an extremely intense way, since long before he hit big.

Basquiat has been subject to some ridicule of late, because a bunch of rich idiots are pushing millions around, using his name (entirely in vain – that is, in a state of sustained and blasphemous misunderstanding) – but he wasn’t labouring to try to rip-off the public – like Banksy, he was trying to say tough things to an out-to-lunch media culture, that routinely ignores anything it can’t instantly digest and co-opt.

One piece of his work regarded adversarially, might give the impression of a madman, rejecting technique for an almost violently-unfiltered impact. But if you were lucky enough to see the incredible recent retrospective show of Basquiat, as I did at the AGO not so long ago, you would better understand. This was an evolved street artist on an ecstatic trip with the intensity of a Coltrane – trying his brilliant best to respond with adequate power to the horror of greed and militarism in Reagan time, much the way that Banksy is responding to our post modern breakdown.

But he had to do it without Banksy’s support-team (active, proud, and many in number) his great natural equanimity, his exquisite self-deprecating humour, his supernaturally adroit media savvy, or the powerful psychological armour of anonymity.

Basquiat was taken advantage of, and one could even argue killed by those who exploited his work in order to get the rich idiots to push millions around. Please folks – don’t pretend that he ever once asked YOU for a million dollars. He most surely did not.

He was here for the prophet trip, not the profit trap. And I say we should all respect anyone with enough love left for the world to make that fool choice.

Especially when they do us the inestimable service of so neatly proving us fools.

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