The Banksy exhibition is currently on in Sydney with 80 artworks, the largest touring collection of the famed street artist’s works.
Just this week Banksy hit the news over a trademark dispute for merchandise using his artworks. Basically if he doesn’t have his own merchandise, he doesn’t own the trademark, meaning others can use it and make money on the sales. So he’s been busy creating a whole bunch of merchandise to prevent his artworks being used by others and he’s launched his own store Gross Domestic Product to sell it.
But back to the show. It has been curated by Steve Lazarides, Banksy’s former manager and photographer for over 10 years, who until recently worked at the Lazinc Gallery in London.
Banksy first came to prominence in Bristol through his street art which uses stencils to spray paint pictures onto buildings. His arresting artworks have a point to make on inequality, our prejudices, politics and society.
His artwork has become more mainstream and can sell for large sums, yet it has an uneasy relationship to the establishment and the art world itself. There’s another auction of his artwork at Sotheby’s this week expected to break sales records, but for an artist wanting to point our contradictions, doesn’t this pose it’s own contradiction?
Or will there be another prank that skewers the art world? Last year auction house Sotheby’s was pranked in front of the world’s eyes when Banksy’s striking 2006 piece Girl with Balloon shredded just after being sold for a record figure. There are theories Sotheby’s was in on the stunt because of the conditions dictating how the artwork was displayed and that it had to remain in its original frame, which turned out to have a remote-controlled shredder built into the back of the canvas.
Some said the artwork was worth even more after being shredded. But many saw it as a savage critique on this part of the art world and the ultimate way of attacking the capitalist trade in valuable artworks. The contradiction of political street art that’s become a valuable commodity where’s its value in its message has been commodified by the commercial art dealing can’t be lost on Banksy himself.
Who is Banksy?
If you type the phrase ‘who is Banksy’ into Google you’ll get the obvious answer that Banksy is an English street artist famous for political and graphic art who hails from Bristol. But who is the man behind the Banksy artist persona?
There’s so much interest in uncovering the artist, articles have been devoted to discussing the 10 most plausible theories about who is Banksy. There are stories all over the internet that he has been captured on CCTV cameras or by individuals who have posted clips to YouTube claiming to have filmed Banksy disguised as a workman in the early hours of a morning creating his artwork in a public place. Other artists such as photographer Chris Levine have been inspired by Banksy’s anonymity and have photographed the artist for a ‘portrait’ which only shows his head in a hoodie jacket from behind.
There are theories Banksy is a collection of artists or even a woman because women feature prominently in the artworks, although these theories aren’t given a high probability of being true by street art experts. Such is the fascination with uncovering the identity of Banksy, geographic profiling, a technique used to catch criminals, has even been deployed by university criminologists to statically analyse the correlation between possible names and a collection of artworks. There’s still no definitive answer. It doesn’t matter and besides the decision to be anonymous and the obsession it creates to identify the artist is another message from the artist.
What is known about Banksy is that he started creating artworks in the mid-90s and rose to prominence thanks to his street art created on public buildings and other spaces. He is said to have been inspired by the French stencil artist Blek Le Rat in particular. His artworks have a potent, timely message from the personal to the political, but like a lot of street art and, in particular, graffiti, critics say it’s a public nuisance. A Banksy artwork suddenly appearing on a wall can attract interests viewers and there are stories on people mistakenly removing the Banksy creation.
Exit Through The Gift Store
Banksy has a significant body of work by this point, some pieces have the easy recognition that comes from entering the mainstream and being used to signify particular issues. Love Is In The Air, first displayed on a West Bank wall in Jerusalem but replicated on canvas, has become a kind of shorthand to represent Banksy artworks. The art of juxtaposition he uses in many of his works, like this one of the angry, violent man throwing not a bomb or molotov cocktail, but a bunch of flowers, makes the point. It’s a simple, but powerful artistic choice that draws out something in the way we’re living and in our society that needs our attention and hopefully action. The Banksy exhibition shows how this work with powerful effect.
It has to be said the cynical view of Banksy’s potent art is that the message gets lost in translation into the art world where it’s assigned a value from its artistic merits as much as its singular message. Protest art like Banksy’s is either the perfect way to savage the establishment which hands over large sums for attacks as art, or it’s the consequence of a capitalist system, which can place a value on anything, even protest. Just look at how punk has been commodified.
Perhaps Banksy himself gave a nod to this in his 2010 faux documentary Exit Though The Gift Shop (YouTube, Google Play, Stan) that explores his working life, while retaining his anonymity, and the explosion of street art, particularly in Los Angeles. Has he subverted the art world or not? Does he just keep prodding society and challenging us not to overlook our problems and contradictions? Is this in itself important and the trade in his artworks and the valuing of them sits apart from him and his message?
The art of being anonymous
What is it about being anonymous that’s so appealing? For activists organisations like the eponymously named group Anonymous, it’s necessary to protect their identities. The cyber activist group, which carries out attacks on government and institutions is a decentralised association of activists who need to shied their identities from the powerful who are their target.
For artists, it’s also a deliberate choice, but one that’s going to curtail the opportunities for self-promotion and expression. Nothing like letting the art speak for itself in this case. What a strange contradiction to be, on the one hand, famous and well known for your art, but to be unknown yourself. How tempting it must be at time to want to out yourself? On the other hand, how liberating to be anonymous and see what you want through your art and be relief of having to explain and justify yourself outside of it?
Artists Anonymous is a group based in London and Berlin founded in 2001 who initially eschewed the gallery space in favour of creating their own art show in a garage in London. Their artworks have since been exhibited in large galleries and been bought by famous art dealers.
Where’s the female Banksy?
The Banksy’s exhibition suggests the obvious question ‘where is the female equivalent of Banksy’? The answer is that there is a woman regarded as the female Banksy, although it’s worth nothing the artist herself rejects the comparison.
Bambi is an English street artist active since 2010 who’s come to prominence with her public murals of young British royals Kate and William and celebrities like Amy Winehouse and Kim Kardashian. The Mona Lisa has been re-imagined with a snarl in one of her artworks and there’s a nod to Andy Warhol with her graphic portrait series featuring Madonna, Kate Moss and Liz Taylor.
Taking inspiration from Bambi, HuffPost went looking and come up with what it says is 10 female street artists who are better than Banksy.
Why haven’t those of us outside of the art world heard of her? Why isn’t there a blockbuster tour of her artworks and are they fetching million at high-end auction houses? Women’s art has historically been undervalued and given less attention than men’s and it still continues today.
Anonymous Was A Woman is a US$25, 000 art grant given out each year to 10 female artists over the age of 40 to support these artists. It was started in 1996 after the National Endowment of the Arts withdrew support of individual artists and has awarded over $5.5 million to 220 artists.
The woman behind the project Susan Unterberg was anonymous herself until recently coming forward in an interview with the New York Time where she revealed herself and explained she wanted to more openly advocate for female artists. Broad Award for you Ms Unterberg.
Perhaps the Guerrilla Girls summed it up perfectly, reframing the question: ‘Why haven’t there been more great women artists throughout Western history?’ Instead, they ask: “Why haven’t more women been considered great artists throughout Western history?”
The art of the missive
Protest art holds an important role in the art world and has an important place in society to challenge our ways of thinking about certain things and to challenge us as people in the way we live. It’s not always pleasant and it’s certainly not a comfortable place to be, looking at something designed to provoke, but it’s necessary nonetheless.
While living in London last year, The Broad visited the Banksy exhibition when it was on at Lazinc Gallery and enjoyed the striking, graphic artworks, heavily laden with pointed messages. The Broad will be visiting the Sydney exhibition in the next few days and took this opportunity to write some thoughts on Banksy and his artworks. Australian artists have also made their point with protest art.
Want more Banksy?
There are several collections of Banksy’s artworks – Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall, Existencilism, Cut It Out and Wall and Piece – you can buy from Amazon and other online sites.