Thursday, October 17, 2013

Opinion: Banksy, An Englishman In New York

Having lived in London in the middle of the decade, I had the luck of being at the right place at the right time to experience the birth and development of graffiti’s golden child, Banksy. Although it was only roughly thirteen years ago, back then most people didn't really give a fuck about the Bristol based artist. His pieces were easily available to those who wanted them and those that did want them tended to be people like myself, graffiti and street art enthusiasts who already had a history of supporting such movements whether it was through actual participation or via the wallet. I did a little of both.

As my time in the U.K. came to an end, Banksy’s star was beginning to rise. The mysterious artist had become the pride of the common man, still largely ignored by art institutions and art insiders. A lot of young Londoners were now both familiar with and enjoyed the many pieces scattered throughout the country. I got the overwhelming sense that people loved the work because it took complicated social-political issues and through humor presented what many of us where already thinking. By this definition Banksy is really one of the best graphic designers of all time, someone who can take the most complicated of ideas and present it in a graphic form that is instantly and easily digestible to all.

Still, even at these admittedly early stages of fame, Banksy and his work were always met with a sense of excitement by most. The work was there for all to appreciate, on the walls, curbs, bridges and streets of  Britain.

Fast forward to 2006. By this time I have moved to New York City, still finding myself excited by the graffiti scene and art in general. I had not given Banksy as much thought; life gets in the way sometimes, but this soon changed as I started to see his name pop up more and more in mainstream media. If I had to pinpoint Banksy’s rise in the United States I would say “BarelyLegal,” the now famous L.A. show  where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie purchased many canvas’s was the true beginning of America’s interest in the Brit’s work. After all, Brangelina was the hottest celebrity couple at the time and if they were dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars on works well then it had be cool. 

Eventually I got around to checking the listed values of pieces I had picked up years back and was shocked to see sticker prices that were 1000% more than what I had paid. I got the usual questions and comments from friends. “Will you sell them?” “What did you pay for them originally?” “You’re such  a lucky bastard to happen upon this get rich quick lottery.”

In the years since, I have obtained some more of Banksy’s work into my personal collection while losing some of those original’s to theft (sure it sucks but I’m not one to dwell on such things) always keeping an eye out for new street work with the same sort of enthusiasm I felt back in London all those years ago. Banksy even visited New York for a unique show in 2008 that got some attention which saw the artist try new and exciting things, but nothing could prepare me for the shit storm that has become Banksy’s latest show in New York, a month long street art residency titled, “Better Out Than In.”

If you need it spelled out for you or are just perhaps unfamiliar with Banksy’s philosophy on his fame and the artwork it’s this:

Graffiti works best out in public on the streets for all to see and interact with as opposed to a gallery setting where the affluent and wealthy reap most of the benefits, waxing poetic about works and a scene that they have little in common with, if anything. Perhaps even more ironic is the social-political commentary often made in the works seemed to be poking fun at these very same groups of people!

And so here we are today, just over the halfway point of “Better Out Than In” and I have gotten a pretty good taste of what to expect and how New Yorker’s will receive the world’s most famous prankster.

Banksy brings out the very worst in New York City’s unquenchable yet ultimately shallow thirst for art and creativity. Whether intentional or not, Banksy’s residency places the magnifying glass on New York City and its residents and I am saddened at what I see.  

Pieces go up and are destroyed or removed for resell purposes within 24 hours of being shared. In one case a couple of shady individuals started to charge the public to take photos of a piece keeping it under wraps unless you could cough up $20+ for the photo-op. Industrial sized doors have been removed from their hinges in “undesirable” areas, as they are not just keeping people out of factories and offices, but are also now an entrance(pun intended) into instant wealth.

Once word spread of Banksy’s Central Park stall where one could purchase an original canvas for as low as $60, all anyone could seem to talk about was how they wished they’d been there to cash in. This took me back to when people expressed the same sentiment with my own purchases. New Yorkers couldn’t hold down their disdain at the idea that a tourist might be taking what was rightfully theirs (who else would purchase art at Central Park?) But that’s really the genius of Banksy. His ability to point that aforementioned magnifying glass and put a spotlight on what is seemingly New York’s unlimited egotism and love of money and power.  Perhaps you don't agree and even think this isn't the case, but I would like to think that the stunt is the very point of the show, even if it is lost on many of the city’s residents as they gaze in awe for but a moment at the work, feeling some sort of spiritual awakening that is quickly forgotten once the skepticism and jealousy return.

What do the next thirteen days or so have in store for us? I personally can't wait to see, but would be pretty shocked if he ever returns here for a project of this scale again. After all, unlike Londoners all those years back who united behind the works and focused on the message before the monetary value and name associated with them, New Yorkers have started to resemble the inspiration for those earlier works, specifically the rat-like characters that were up to no good. And because this is New York, the rats are bigger, meaner and dirtier than most.

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