Banksy, the art of visual eloquence

Ferrara, Palazzo dei Diamanti, 30 May – 27 September 2020

It is expected, when one reads an article about an “iconic” artist, that his originality and exceptional contribution to the history of art will be one way or another acknowledged and celebrated. One interesting point about Banksy, the pseudonymous English street artist, is that we are facing an impressive phenomenon which is clearly related to the visual arts while belonging perhaps more to the universe of rhetoric, in the sense that the creative dimension is less visual than semiotic. The aura surrounding this particular individual is that of a star, a status which denotes the mutation of talent into another class, where the person begins to matter as much as his achievements, and is able to leverage his talent so as to reach social influence. Perhaps Banksy is the first invisible star in the history of the star system…

Indeed, the work of this artist – let us keep the denomination for the purpose of convenience – consists to a large extent in the recycling of well-known images which are borrowed and then combined, mostly by juxtaposition, with other images or texts in order to express an often political and sometimes poetic message. The tone of these political messages tends to be sardonic; their content remains fairly simplistic, as only simplicity renders a political message effective with an audience with enough visual and political baggage to receive it, and not quite enough to contest it. In short, beyond his evident graphic talent, Mr. Banksy is a highly skilled and effective visual rhetorician, and deserves to be celebrated mainly for this.  

By applying the stencil techniques to city walls, in the wake of – and clearly inspired by – the work of Blek le Rat, by re-working the tradition of 20th century political graphics and slogans, and thanks to his acute sense of the functioning of today’s art system, by cleverly building on the current wave of “chic anarchism” and conspiracy mindset that permeates the crowds of art-lovers, Banksy is perhaps the most outstanding example of a talented image-maker who managed to launch a visual product perfectly suited to its time and public. He brought his viewers close to the status of supporters.

Street art is unquestionably one of the most exciting scenes in today’s visual arts, with video games and fantasy comics a close and related second. It has managed to re-invent in a powerful manner the visual imaginary of our time, and the long-neglected realm of “public art”, a practice most effectively defined and developed by the Mexican muralists and the Soviet avant-garde of the early 20th century. In a moment of enthusiasm, Jeffrey Deitch, the art dealer and curator well known for the Deitch Projects, and director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles between 2010 and 2013, once described graffiti artists as the most influential artists of their time, in terms of the number of people they reach, and the number of people making work influenced by them. It is hard to dispute this, particularly from this quantitative perspective.

There is no actual precedent to this art form, which required the social and urban context of the modern megalopolis to emerge. All the comparisons made here and there with Paleolithic cave art or Pompeian graffiti are mere nonsense, the only common point being the use of walls. Most graffiti found at Pompei belong to the banal category of disparaging, mocking or salacious inscriptions which are universal, and irrelevant to our topic. They should rather be compared to the torrent of idiocies and poor jokes flooding contemporary internet chats.

Graffiti art was born with a political significance, partly lost today, not so much because of its explicit messages, which are usually poor, but because of its illegality, its questioning of this basic tenet of our societies which is property, whether private or public, i.e. the idea that access to land, buildings or objects may be restricted or controlled. The hundreds of graffiti artists who criss-cross large cities are engaged in a sort of guerilla by method, a guerilla which fights the comfort of an institutionally controlled visual space and therefore questions, when successful, the very effectiveness of the State.

Banksy famously declared that “Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.” He added that art is the easiest business in the world, and requires no talent to make some money. The first of these assertions is unjust but hard to dismiss entirely, as any visit to a dozen art fairs will confirm. The second is a coquetry, as irrelevance is never paid very much for. One should never forget that art is never a unilateral statement: it only exists in a context, and success of an artwork means that it met with the sometimes explicit, but more often untold, expectations of a particular group at a particular time of history. There is no art without and outside such relationship: an artist uses as his material not only technical means, and the vast repertoire of images which he was confronted with in his lifetime, but also and perhaps preeminently his own intuition of what could be meaningful to his contemporaries. 

The excellent Banksy exhibition in Ferrara is an opportunity, or a pretext, to discuss in some greater detail a number of works by Banksy, what message they convey, and how.

Banksy’s identity remains unknown, it would seem (see his Self-portrait on the left); he is believed to have been born in Bristol, England, around 1973 or 1974. The man rose to prominence in the late 1990s for some stenciled pieces which were deemed provocative, and he rapidly understood that such “provocation” is an art in itself, which provides quick dividends in fame before it provides them in cash.  In his film Exit through the gift shop, which is a kind of biopic of Thierry Guetta, alias Mr. Brainwash, Banksy states – of confesses – that “Thierry showed up at a time when I realized the reaction to this stuff was one of the most interesting things about it.” This sentence is a good lead to understanding part of Banksy’s work. By “reaction” he does not necessarily imply reaction to a provocation, but a reaction is always a bilateral affair: if nobody feels “pushed” or “unbalanced”, little reaction is to be expected. Poor jokes, used-up slogans, intellectual musings or well-crafted images tend to meet with indifference rather than trigger reactions: it is a much more complex affair than it seems.

In order to trigger a reaction by visual means only, visual eloquence must be perfected. The artist needs an excellent understanding of the values which are dear to the targeted audience, so that it may react positively, i.e. be first unsettled but then attracted to, or in communion with, the meanings suggestedby the artist. To bring about a positive reaction, public acceptance is not sufficient: a tension is required, the identity or concerns of the viewer need to be summoned and questioned. One classic method to achieve that is to simultaneously shock the viewer and side with him against a common target, an “enemy” conceptual enough to breed consensus while avoiding a backlash. Capitalism was always a good candidate; the State with its army and police an infallible one. Injustice is always a winner. As concepts cannot be visually shown other than by the rather clumsy means of allegory, it is best to let them surge by inference, suggested by some event or narrative. It is the method used by activists and journalists of all obedience: a shocking but limited event becomes the failure of a whole system, a proof endlessly referred to. Induction is a common intellectual shortcut; it is the only “thinking tool” available to images in order to navigate between facts and ideas.  

Street art is an heir to, and an expansion of, graffiti art which prospered in the 70s, itself derived from the more elementary tags of the 60s, the days when CORNBREAD, KOOL EARL, TOP CAT or the group WICKED PHILLY tagged the walls of Philadelphia and New York. It is initially a result of the expansion of large cities and their transportation networks, their brutal social contrasts, and the proliferation of signs, lights and images in the streets. Tags were a means of getting noticed in large cities where the poor easily become invisible because the disparity of revenues and cultural capital spontaneously fragments the space, unless mitigated by policy; however the goal was to be noticed as individuals rather than as a group, or a class. It is telling that a large proportion of tags was applied on metro or train carriages, in order to visually and symbolically pass the barriers created by wealth and community groupings, and thus reconnect with the center. The “moving tag” makes the tagger exist outside of the narrow boundaries of his borough; its perceived ugliness, in a sense, and the violence of its traits and colours, forces people to see it, willingly or not. As soon as 1969, TAKI 183 becomes a celebrity beyond his neighborhood, which immediately triggered a phenomenon of emulation, a key driver of the fast spreading of graffiti art.

Graffiti has been defined by some as any form of unofficial, unsanctioned application of a medium onto, or engraving of a surface. That would pretty much cover most drawings or writings on buildings from the Antiquity to our post-industrial days, from scribblings on toilet doors to elaborate street art. It is therefore useless as a concept. It is certainly not a coincidence that graffiti appeared and flourished at a time when society was highly politicized, most notably around issues such as the Vietnam war or the emancipation of Blacks. It does participate in that general movement of questioning the roots and legitimacy of authority in the whole of the western world, and of the relevance of the inherited past.

Lonny Wood, alias PHASE2, is also a DJ and key contributor to the scene of hip-hop, a movement which appeared in the South Bronx around 1970, and includes both musical and visual expressions through graffiti, rap, DJing and break-dancing. This link will become more and more important for graffiti artists in their early days. PHASE2 embellishes his letters, invents new ornaments, and creates a style of “bubbly letters” called softies; he will paint hundreds of train carriages. More and more of these artists introduce variations, rhythms, volumes that will characterize the wild style. The early days of tagging are gone. This movement gains traction, and the 1973 article by Richard Goldstein, This Thing Has Gotten Completely Out of Control, is a major step towards the recognition of this nascent art form. Many of the visual codes still enduring today were born in those days. Richard Mirando, alias SEEN, is perhaps the most impressive of those early graffiti artists judging by his ability to devise a scenography for the letters, by his elegant crafting of contours, his mastery of the third dimension.

Elaborating around the letters, some artists will add new themes inspired by comics, pop art and other sources in their environment, and introduce human figures. Soon, they will conceive their practice as an artwork per se, making extensive preparatory sketches; this is the case of Donald Joseph White, alias DONDI, who also chooses to drop the rule of anonymity. In his wake, other artists will introduce personal or political issues in their work, and question the foundations or the reality of the American Dream. “Graffiti is for me a form of rebellion, this is why I desecrate this flag” says QUIK. Others, such as FUTURA or RAMMELZEE, evolve towards more abstract images which sometimes remind us of the universe of a Kandinsky, or a Picabia. Interestingly, FUTURA considers that graffiti can hardly be qualified as art, since it was born to function outside of the system; the assumption is that art is defined by the system, as one said in those days, i.e. has an inevitable connection with powers in place. “Art” is an accomplice to the system. This anecdote shows to what extent segments of society were already living on the fringe, as if symbolically walled.

In New York, the mayor declares “war on graffiti” as soon as 1972; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will start waging that war in 1978, just when galleries such as Fashion Moda or the Fun Gallery in Manhattan, or Claudio Bruni in Rome, start taking a serious interest in the movement. A collector such as Sam Esses provides a studio so that graffiti artists may work without being chased, thus supporting a move from the street to the canvas, after the move from carriages to walls. A move, not a retreat, though; rather an extension of the possibilities of this art form. Although many such artists would oppose the dominant visual culture, as they were by definition a counter-culture, some such as John Matos, alias CRASH, used elements of the surrounding pop culture in their works, be it logos, sign posts or characters from cartoons, as was the case for his contribution to the L.I.S.A. project; QUIK would use pin-ups in the fashion of Roy Lichtenstein. These borrowings are clearly not meant to be espousals of any mainstream culture, but they tend to be used either for the purpose of undermining that culture, or as an expressionist tool. In the 1980s, CRASH, FUTURA, SEEN and others will be exhibited in galleries around the world: it is the era of internationalization of graffiti art. Graffiti started as a visual expression of periphery, social dereliction, and rebellion, but not so much in order to “change the world” : rather as a gesture specifically aimed at becoming visible to society through the means of a – mostly illegal – “visual performance”. The factual visibility of the signature was, in a sense, a proxy for the social visibility of the person: graffiti are in essence a metonymy where the image stands for the person itself.  

Painting train carriages is obviously a means of transgression, of intrusion, of crossing social borders, as your graffiti will penetrate places where society – the “system” – does not welcome you, or even does not allow you to enter. Achieving this feat implies a combination of speed and stealth. Stealth is daughter of the night, while speed commands both the use of a narrow band of techniques, including aerosol cans, stencil or collage, and a relative simplicity of forms: speed of execution is a clear enemy of complexity. One could say that these two self-imposed constraints, visually penetrating the center, and illegality, have shaped this art form to a large extent. Now, artists realized pretty soon that the way to increase complexity without incurring into any danger resided in the quality of preparatory work, so as to waste no decision time before execution. And bizarrely, it is society through the pressure of law enforcement that has been a co-creator of these works. The police officer is the unwilling accomplice of the graffiti artist, and a stimulus for his inventiveness.

Another, no less intriguing observation, is that graffiti art bears an inherent ideological contradiction insofar as the logic of individuality is exacerbated by the use of image as a signature, while the social issues underpinning the emergence of this art form are collective by their very nature.

There are two ways of using an image to convey one’s individuality: the signature (or any variant thereof, such as the alias), and the style. Picasso, Vermeer or Malevich could probably be recognized at first sight by any educated person, although their epigons might blur the picture; most people will struggle to correctly attribute a Dutch still-life of the 17th century, despite variations in style and quality of execution. At the other extreme, replacing the painting by a large signature dispenses the artist of elaborating any style at all. Graffiti art moved in time from the latter to the former, from identification by signature to identification by style, but always stressing identity.

It is worth noting that the torrential inflow of new participants in the graffiti art scene from the end of the 1970s onward, each with his own personality, set of values, and ambition, set off a phenomenon of extreme competition mitigated by a sense of community.

Competition because here was indeed a way to make a name and a living for oneself, in the days when there was no Youtube or Instagram to achieve that. Social promotion was demonstrably accessible, and it had an impact.

Community because these persons all came more or less from the same neighborhoods and social condition, while often sharing the same hip-hop culture; they all faced the same dangers, the same sheriffs of Nottingham. They shared a purpose and a thrill, their semantic or behavioural codes, their paths of apprenticeship. Inexperienced street artists, or those who do not abide by the common codes, are called toys. Nuisances, in a way. The word “toy” may be written over their work, thus nullifying it. This is a world where, as in the case of most closed communities, there is an inside and an outside, with a form of symbolic violence to keep the community members in line and avoid trespassing by others. Repression is accepted when it enforces your own community rules, it is not banned per se

Now, individual competition is, together with private property, the very engine of the capitalist system, driving innovation, creating new markets, and rewarding the “winners” with money and fame. From that perspective, graffiti artists were and remain the ultimate capitalists, just as rappers are today. In the sub-category of capitalists in denial. Here is a movement unlike any other before, where talent is put to the service of the ego quite explicitly, in good old “Dali style”. Except that, contrary to Dali, Warhol or Koons who are among the greatest self-marketers who graced the history of art, graffiti artists needed to remain concealed for protection reasons; the reward was therefore confined to the ego, and judgment was passed by peers. Things started to change with the spreading of the movement and the interest taken by art critics, collectors and gallerists.

The flip side of the same coin was repression, and authorities mobilized not only cleaning brigades, kilometers of barbed wire and the local police, but also advertisement agencies and celebrities, with slogans such as “make your mark in society, not on society”. The years 1984 to 1989, under the second mandate of Ronald Reagan, saw the peak of repression, until in 1989 the MTA declared “victory” over graffiti. The “broken window theory” of Rudolf Giuliani had become common wisdom. Although this was perhaps sensible in terms of public order, as traditional societies tend to maintain social equilibrium by keeping low-level trigger points, and from a budgetary perspective as well, considering that cleaning up the metro cost around 50 million dollars a year, this attitude probably reflected a misunderstanding as to the subversive potential of graffiti art in the early days. This subversive potential is paradoxically higher today than it was then, in the good old atmosphere of chaos and transgression of the 1970s.

The age-old debate about freedom of expression on the one side, versus degradation of public goods and the imposition of a message to people who did not choose to “hear” it, on the other side, remains as relevant as it ever was, and just as intractable unless the law – or jurisprudence – establishes a priority of the one over the other. That dividing line is the same that cuts through the political spectrum of all democracies.

A key point to remember is that graffiti art was conceived as being ephemeral either because repression makes it so, or because the artist himself chooses supports – such as construction site fences, or walls about to be pulled down – precisely in order to ensure that the work will not live for long. This is now changing fast, as the very success of street art leads municipalities to dedicate whole urban areas to street art, such as Wynwood in Miami, and elected officials in many parts of the world to view street art both as an attraction and as proof of their concern for the “people”, the “young”, the “dropouts”.

There is a fundamental opposition between an Art that aspires to eternity, to pick up a word, and an art that claims to represent or embody a “counter-culture”. A counterculture cannot aspire to eternity because eternity is attained by what is or becomes established, acknowledged. Counterculture is a guerrilla, it moves, surges and wanes. Once street art had become the stuff of museum and auction houses, it had also crossed the line, joining the cohorts of greater and lesser creations of Art History. Jean-Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring, say, were always very close to the world of graffiti art. They just decided to cross the line, or perhaps their superior talent made the decision for them.

After 1980, the movement spread to a large number of other cities, starting with Los Angeles where graffiti had hitherto been the practice of local criminal gangs marking their territory. The 1980s are also the years when the action moves to Europe, alongside the spreading of the hip-hop culture to the Old continent. The Berlin Wall becomes a giant opportunity open to all graffiti artists, at the cost of abandoning some of the graffiti art constraints and most evidently repression: on the contrary, it is used by the West as a propaganda tool against the East. American artists find their way to galleries in Germany (Art in Progress, Thomas…) and the Netherlands (Yaki Kornblit), books are published, and graffiti art penetrates the sacred halls of museums: major exhibitions are put up such as New York Graffiti at the Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, or Arte di Frontiera: New York Graffiti in various Italian museums. Paris becomes a major scene thanks to the walls of the Stalingrad wasteland in Paris, but also because major local or European artists choose to work there, such as the Portuguese Victor Ash, the great English talent MODE2, the French BANDO and SKKI, a quasi-conceptualist, or JAY, the “Black Picasso”. Together, BANDO and MODE2, soon joined by the Dutch artist SHOE, will become the ambassadors of European graffiti art of that time.

One of the key figures in this panorama was – and remains – Xavier Prou, alias Blek le Rat, one of the key players of street art in France. Born in 1951, he was impressed by the American graffiti art scene of the 70s, and bizarrely by a stencil portrait of Mussolini, seen in Padova. Here is an artist who actually received a formal education at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris. He had chosen his pseudonym from the comic strip Blek le Roc, created in Italy under the name Il Grande Blek which narrates the story of a French trapper fighting the British during the American war of independence. And obviously, while Blek is a solitary, irregular fighter, “rat” is an anagram of “art”. Part of the program of graffiti art is in that pseudonym… 

Unsatisfied with his early work, Blek le Rat soon turned to stencil, having observed political stencil works in various parts of Europe; however, his work never took an explicitly political turn, which probably explains why he remained in the shadows of his world-famous disciple Banksy. In the early 1980s, Blek le Rat starts covering walls with his characteristic full-sized bodies of celebrities as well as anonymous persons, and benefits from a relative leniency of the police in those first years of socialist government, until he gets heavily fined by a court in 1991, and adopts the method of sticking posters on the walls rather than painting directly on their surface. In 1985, MISS TIC will start covering walls with her more poetic stencils, which all include her characteristic attractive young woman who brings seduction to the image, a play on the attractiveness of alternative worlds, and an alternative to the presumably false seductions brought along by publicity. What matters most in the work of MISS TIC is the introduction of mottos as the core element of the stencil, rather than a mere comment or addition to the drawn image.

Around the end of last century, both competition and repression intensified; as a result, the practice started moving away from “classic” graffiti towards more elaborate and diverse forms, in more tolerated places, with graffiti merging in a sense with the universe of murals. This is the advent of street art. Another reason is simply the exhaustion of the traditional, New York style, graffiti form. And indeed, examples of early-style graffiti art can still be spotted here and there today, in 2020, on walls or metro carriages, and they do look dated. Outdated. Fourty years is a long period for a style…

Stencil became more common because it allowed to reconcile speed of execution, required to escape repression, and complexity of the form, required to differentiate the artists and play the competition game. With stencil, most of the work is preparatory. The same could be said of collage, sticker art, LED art, etc. The novelty consisted in a shift from an art form which stresses individuality – an art of the signature one way or another, addressing peers – towards an art form which focuses more on the message, addressing the general public.

The French artist ZEVS, whose particular form of “artistic guerilla” targets consumerism by hijacking and distorting logos and billboards, is a case in point. In 2004, he cuts out the image of a female model on a Lavazza poster in Berlin, and asks for a ransom, a gesture he calls a visual kidnapping. Cleverly, Lavazza paid the ransom on the occasion of a performance at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris so that ultimately, Lavazza’s brand benefited from the event, and the “attacker” served his “victim” as much as himself. Like in a game of Go, semantic “territories” can easily be invaded by the “enemy”… or other unintended parties.

In that context, Banksy appears on the scene of street art at a relatively late date, resorting to the long-experienced technique of stencil, but stressing partly political, partly “feel good” messages which resonate with an internet-bred generation, messages often amplified by a clever tie to contemporary events.

Banksy was born in Bristol, that much is clear; as for other elements of his biography, they are more sketchy because he always used anonymity as part of a strategy that goes well beyond the mere necessity to escape some repression by the police; such necessity has become less and less plausible once the artist achieved fame. Indeed, although the theoretical justification might be that Banksy wishes to be known for, and judged by, his art alone, in reality anonymity is part of a scenography designed to construct his own myth, it is a teaser. A perfect illustration of this is the fact that in 2011, a court condemned the tagger TOX to twenty-seven months of jail for vandalism, while nobody ever disturbed Banksy for having painted a wall in a northern borough of London as a tribute to TOX. The court’s argument was basically that TOX is no Banksy. Talent graces the walls that mediocrity only degrades. This point is essential: once society acknowledges graffiti as being Art rather than a mere act of vandalism or rebellion, then it becomes part of what society values and protects. Signs change from negative to positive.

Whether or not we know the identity of the man who lets himself call Banksy is irrelevant to the status of the artist in society, or the status of art for that matter, a question asked much more forcefully by Marcel Duchamp or by the Russian avant-garde in their days. What is of greater interest is his understanding of how to leverage on the sensitivities, habits and expectations of a generation which he understands extremely well, and which he knows how to play with in order to feed it with the messages which are expected in substance before they are received in form.

The American illustrator Gary Baseman, turned artist in 1999 with his exhibition Dumb Luck and other Paintings About Lack of Control, coined the term “pervasive art” in order to describe an aesthetic which “blurs the lines between fine art and commercial art”, which is ubiquitous, and therefore able to enter into a quasi-inevitable interaction with the public. To some extent, he was thus characterizing his own path from successful illustrator, well-known for the visual identity of the game Cranium or many amusing wallpapers, to successful artist in a vein which mostly extended the same, immediately recognizable visual vocabulary to paintings, photographs, or videos exhibited in galleries and museums as art. This straddling of the lines lies as much in the intention of the artist-illustrator as in the acceptance as (fine) art by the public of images which previously belonged unambiguously to the realm of comics or children books’ illustrations.

Banksy, or the graphic artist Shepard Fairey for instance, could also be considered as producers of pervasive art. Producers because they resort to a manufacturing system on a commercial scale, and “distribute” through multiple channels images which are or become veritable products, and soon enough generate derivative products such as T-shirts and the like. Shepard Fairey, alias OBEY, has a curriculum which distinguishes him from many graffiti artists in the sense that he attended college, being admitted to the Rhode Island School of Design. His references tend to be more sophisticated. In a manifest, he advocates “visual disobedience” when saturating public space with his stickers and posters, and explains that he tries to reveal what is in front of our eyes but remains obscured by another reading. Changing the way to look at, and interpret, reality is a more challenging ambition than what most street artists had done before. This also applies to Banksy: he works on the lens through which we look at reality.  

Political stencils are as old as one can remember; they were widespread during the 1968 events, for instance. Banksy succeeds in replacing the classic images of protest, the “visual slogans”, by a message that is less blunt, calling for some form of interpretation or deciphering, closer in a sense to well-crafted political caricatures. In order for the underlying message to be more readily accepted, he resorts to humour, or sarcasm, and that smile becomes the entrance door of the meaning. But which meaning ?

Irrespective of any of his utterings, Banksy’s images speak by themselves, and what they say follows basically two lines of thought. The first one is the undermining of established values, authorities and institutions – what I would call his “accusing line” – in the name of freedoms (best left unspecified). The second one serves as a justification to the former, and is the basso continuo of his (and many others’) view on society, that is the twin assumptions of the goodness and innocence of those human beings who wield no power, and the equivalence of their individual “worthiness”; let us call it his “humanistic line”. This broadly libertarian approach, a sense that humanity would live in harmony if power were equally shared among all people and therefore in practice erased, is rooted in two anthropological views. The one we owe to Christianity, which deems and establishes for the first time in recorded history that each person is of equal dignity (St Paul, Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”). The other stems from the Enlightenment, which is both an heir to, and a gravedigger of, the Christian doctrine, as it resolves the problem of evil not through redemption, but through education and human progress, so that the sentence of St Paul could be read:  “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you all have the ability to become, through education, one in Humanity”.

Such an approach appeals to large audiences in a world where basic education and the ability to communicate one’s views about anything and everything are widespread, allowing each group of like-minded people surfing global networks to feel that they are right, just and equal in dignity to anyone else holding the same views.

As already mentioned, the obvious artistic reference of Banksy is Blek le Rat. From the perspective of form and style, Banksy brings nothing new. This inheritance, to call it that way, is indeed acknowledged by Banksy, who produced a large number of stencils featuring a rat, presumably as an homage. One of these rats, with a peace emblem as a necklace, holds up a protest sign saying “Get out while you can”. It obviously refers to the old saying that rats abandon a sinking ship before the sailors realize that it is sinking. Here the rat tells us to abandon our ship, and that ship can only be the prevailing order, capitalism, and all other nightmares of well-intended people, for this is the rat of peace. Pace e gioia, “peace and happiness”, goes endlessly the Count in the hilarious scene of the Barbiere di Siviglia where he tries to ingratiate himself to the guardian of the woman he desires, mimicking the Franciscan motto “pace e bene”… Getting rid of the guardian, of the authority which is an obstacle to one’s desires, is the dream of all adolescents, all dreamers and all utopians. By an inversion which we intuitively capture, the “peaceful rat” finds himself on the deck, rather than in the dirty sewers of society, telling us that the ship where he used to wallow in obscurity is now going down, and his day has come. What Banksy introduces, and adds to the form imagined by Blek le Rat, is an unrivalled visual eloquence sustained by a remarkable paucity of means.  

Let us go back to the teachings of the great theoretician of eloquence that was Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC – 43BC) : Nunc de narratione ea, quae causae continet expositionem, dicendum uidetur. Oportet igitur eam tres habere res : ut breuis, ut aperta, ut probabilis sit. « It is now time to speak about the storytelling which describes the cause. It should be brief (i.e., dense), clear, and plausible ». (De Inuentione, 1, 28). In his De Oratore, Cicero adds that, in order to convince, the orator must teach (docere), please (placet) and move (movere). Contrary to most other street artists, Banksy knows how to apply storytelling to a single image. The story is immediately understandable in all its key aspects, and conveys one obvious message (breuis); it does so without any subtle digressions or ambiguities (aperta); it appears to make sense, to be an acceptable criticism of a well-known situation (probabilis). This image is eloquent as it always delivers a message, it usually amuses, distracts or surprises thanks to unexpected associations which purpose is to bring to attention, and it moves by appealing to higher aspirations or by triggering reactions of the viewer (pity, sorrow, revenge, anger, etc). Let us have a closer look at some of Banksy’s works.

Monkey Queen, which appeared on the window of the Chill Out Zone club in London on the occasion of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee of 2002, depicts Queen Elizabeth II with the face of a monkey. The background is a target in the colours of the British flag, implying that the Queen, degraded as a monkey, is a target to shoot at. Banksy often represents people holding power as monkeys, an animal which in certain cultures evokes wisdom, but is more readily associated with either a primitive, or a grimacing animal which imitates without acting autonomously, or wielding any actual power. The monkey is an illusionist, a make-believe, inviting us to read better (let us remember the injunction of Shepard Fairey). Obviously, the Queen of England holds no constitutional powers, and therefore has nothing much to imitate; but she is the symbol of her nation, its history and its togetherness. This is probably what Banksy is going after: the very idea of a national and cultural identity. And indeed, the target behind the Queen’s head being fused with the roundel of the Royal Air Force, it is Britain itself through one of its most glorious collective adventures which is to be taken down symbolically.

This silkscreen may be related to Laugh now, where we see a monkey with the sandwich board reading: “Laugh now but one day we will be in charge”. This work was apparently commissioned by a nightclub in Brighton, also in 2002. It would appear that the message is to denounce any form of arrogance vis-à-vis humbler forms of life – after all, apes are distant cousins of ours – and humbler persons, an arrogance that will be vindicated in some unspecified future. You feel like reading the Gospel of Luke (1: 51 – 52) :

He has done a mighty deed with His arm;

He has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts;

He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.

Unfortunately, Banksy’s quotation in the exhibition brings us down to a more mundane interpretation: “The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies which scrawl their giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff”. This is true to some degree, as the purpose of companies is to instill craving, and if one cannot obtain what he craves for, he may feel inadequate, incompetent, relegated outside of the walls of society. So the jest is that big companies, the powers of this world, are symbolically humiliating vast segments of society, while controlling individuals through the manipulation of their instincts and desires; and there will be retribution for that.

In the same order of ideas, one could mention Queen Vic, where we seen Queen Victoria as a lesbian engaged in “queening” with a sexy girl whom she straddles. The play on words is here at its best, and must have inspired the image from the outset. It is a further way to desecrate the royalty, and power in general, by exposing the distance between the apparent glory of the sceptered, highbrow Queen on the one hand, and the actual lowliness of her true instincts and behaviour on the other hand. Although the act itself is a banality of sex life, it nevertheless brings down power to the “bestiality” of need and desire. Furthermore, the Queen is the one who straddles, i.e. who sits symbolically on top and enjoys, while the people lie below, their face squashed, and provide for her enjoyment. This adds a class dimension to the story, an implicit message that “we, the people, work and are humiliated in order to provide pleasures and comfort to the ones on top”. A classic of anti-elite discourse.

Let us now consider another “power”, and that is religion of course. One of Banksy’s most distasteful images shows the Virgin Mary feeding her Son, which stands here for all infants and children, with a bottle of poison. The image is theologically absurd, as the Virgin Mary does not teach anything to her Son, but visually very powerful : it implies that the church as an institution (and presumably the Roman Catholic Church as the Mother of Christ is largely irrelevant to Protestants) feeds humans, since their infancy, with the poison of religion. There is no point in discussing the merits of this cliché; we will focus instead on the effectiveness of the image in conveying that message. As often, Banksy hijacks existing, well-known images and twists or inverts their meaning by adding to or subtracting from that image those elements which will be strictly sufficient to achieve the metamorphosis. In this particular case, we have a classic “Madonna and Child”, immediately recognizable by any person with even the most rudimentary familiarity with art; the Madonna’s head is surrounded by a halo, not the child’s, while it is usually both or none. Therefore the child being fed is not Jesus, but a human. While the stencil is in black and white, the bottle is orange so that it stands out, carrying the standardized sign of death, a skull on crossbones. Hence the mother (identifiable to religion because of an obvious connotation) feeds death to an unsuspecting, innocent human child: what crime could be worse?

Going back to Cicero, we have all the ingredients of effective eloquence. A “teaching” (easily related to the tirelessly quoted sentence of Karl Marx, “religion is the opiate of the masses”, from his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). A call to attention, as the image is built like a visual charade, but more fundamentally because it resorts to a necessary ingredient of surprise, that of creating unexpected associations or giving unexpected outcomes to a given situation. And a call to emotions as the murdering of a child by his own mother is obviously the ultimate crime. Why would such an image “work”? Because, beyond its eloquence, the message was already received before it became visually stated. It is part of the generally accepted views of an extended minority, perhaps even a majority, of the people in Europe, educated and not, that religion is harmful, if not outright nefarious. Banksy never goes against a widely accepted opinion of his potential viewers, because the power of his visual rhetoric is based on bringing as many viewers as possible to coalesce around the same message, and it is this mass that constitutes the social power required to further disseminate the message. His images do not have the intent and even less the power to convince, contrary to a photograph, say, that proves a fact, or a lengthy presentation that supports an argument. They have the power to rally. Here is an art which functions exactly the same way as social networks: people post texts or images that will receive the approval of like-minded “friends”, of the community they are aimed at, and the “likes” will reward this posting because they are a way to feel together; it will then be harder to go against a much-liked view if one belongs to that segment of society.

A third example can be given with the text “Lying to the police is never wrong”, sometimes written on the sandwich board of a monkey, as already described. Because the police is the ultimate instrument of power, it is presumably to be blunted by lies. This is merely a restatement of the 1968 slogans, and in line with any libertarian’s viewpoint; it works towards the undermining of authorities in general, and the distrust for any form of authority, which usually permeates the extremes of the political spectrum.

A sentence by Banksy may summarize his views about rules and authority: “The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages”. This is basically a re-statement of the famous Milgram experiment, but drawing the wrong conclusion. States are the only organizations capable both of making rules and aggregating enough power to enforce them, so that its ability to destroy is hard to match. Take away the rules, you get the mafias. Banksy is an artist, not a political scientist or a neuro-scientist. But those who look at his works, and are not political scientists or neuro-scientists either, may infer that rules are to be broken, for the greater good. This kind of message takes hold in large segments of society.

Last but not least, and unsurprisingly, Banksy gets at large commercial companies which represent for most people the real power behind the state and, not content with exploiting and ripping off the “commoner”, buys and manipulates politicians to make them act in their strategic interest. This can occasionally be the case, of course, as we can witness daily with the so-called GAFA, and should indeed be fought by the citizens; it is also food for all conspiracy theories. The message of libertarians goes one step further when it considers consumption as the root of those evils, since without consumption those companies would have no money and therefore no power. Perhaps more importantly, austerity leaves no room to the expression of distinction, to the scandal of hierarchy.  

A very striking – and somehow shocking – image by Banksi is Napalm (Can’t Beat That Feeling), where Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald hold the hands of the naked girl walking in tears on a road after the massacre of My Lai, during the Vietnam war, surrounded by indifferent soldiers. Mickey and Ronald smile, they are the American Way of Life, always optimistic and looking forward to the future. Perhaps they smile because the companies which they represent are doing so well, despite or even because of the war. A war against “the people”, against communism which presumably represents the people, but certainly could represent in theory a world centered on human progress and social harmony rather than on consumption and money-making. According to this narrative, the suffering of the girl of My Lai is the condition, or at least an inevitable side effect, of the prosperity of the big firms and their shareholders, a prosperity which depends on the crushing of any system alternative to capitalism: Mickey and Ronald need that war.

Ideologically, the example would have been more convincing with any other adversary than communism, which is the worst enemy of libertarianism as the fighters of the Spanish Civil War discovered to their detriment. But here the enemy is capitalism, and any symbolic weapon to fight it is good to have. Banksy repeats the same trick: he concentrates on an image with a very simple composition a narrative which everyone can grasp at first sight, as the three characters are known worldwide. Everyone knows Disneyland, millions have seen Ronald in a McDonald restaurant, and if people have seen  a couple of hundred photographs in textbooks, exhibitions, or TV documentaries, chances are they have seen the icon of My Lai. Banksy then brings together visual components which seem unrelated, or blatantly contradict each other. From that contradiction he extracts a message which boils down to: “things are the reverse of what they should be, or what they appear to be” or, drawing on the safe ground of good old American cinema, “the good guy (including you, the viewer) is suffering because of the bad guy, whom I will now reveal to you, and that is the large corporations, and its subservient state ”. The “teaching” is simple and therefore easy to understand, attention is mobilized by a shock, rather than by humour in this case, and the emotion is brought in by the horror of the girl’s fate and the disgust of these smiles indifferent to pain. Had Mickey Mouse looked sad or depressed, the shock would not occur, and the reflection of the American Way of Life would not operate.   

However, there is an ethical aspect which does not seem to bother either the artist or the viewers: is it legitimate to instrumentalize this girl’s, or any victim’s agony in order to make a political point? Does the making of this point compensate the victim, perhaps still alive as a mature woman, for exhibiting her sufferings? The same question applies obviously to anyone printing this photo in a book or magazine. The indifference of the Big Firms to the fate of their victims is mirrored by the indifference of the artist who needs the symbolic shock to make his point, just as the Ronald may need the actual violence of the war to make his money. Of course, nobody gets killed in the first case, and perhaps consciences will be awoken so as to avoid the next killing. On balance, what could justify, or excuse, the use and distortion of certain images is the goal of moulding human minds in order to avoid future harm, like pictures of horrible car accidents are sometimes used for safety campaigns. Except that ideologies and facts are not on equal footing. The image makes you feel, more than if you read a book, that there is a strong link between a cause and an effect, between the behaviour of Ronald and the fate of the My Lai victim. The imprint of a visual message on the mind is generally stronger than that of a convoluted textual demonstration. A text makes an argument, an image makes a statement.

A second group of works is what one might call the “humanistic line”, where the image is built around the general concept of “hope”. Some of the paintings on the Palestine wall would fall into this category, as well as the famous Love is in the air (Flower thrower), where a protester launches a bunch of flowers instead of a Molotov cocktail. The original piece first appeared in Jerusalem, on the wall built to separate Israel from Palestine. The title is taken from a song by the Australian singer John Paul Young in 1977. A symbol of reconciliation is not what you would expect in an ideological fight, which by its own very nature is a fight to the end, a fight on principles. Here again, the image is built around a contradiction, and gains much of its power from that contradiction: violence and flowers, or is it violence by the means of flowers?  The contradiction is precisely the mechanism that forces the viewer to interpret, i.e. to seek a resolution to the contradiction. Launching flowers is an equivalent of fighting for peace, or love, with the flowers representing the ultimate goal just as the torch of liberty might do. But it could also be an image of a non-violent fight with the instruments of love, or peace, “Gandhi style” if you will. This ambivalence creates a dynamic, avoids the “closure” of the meaning, allows the image to keep its intriguing energy and to circulate well beyond the circle of any group adhering to a particular issue or fight. The image is of particular significance on the wall where history was and continues to be made of violence, while “love” (the flowers, standing for reconciliation) is the only way to tear the wall down, a wall which is both a symptom and a cause of violence.

The ultimate image of this “humanistic line” is of course the ultra-famous girl with a balloon, along the message “There is always hope”, straight out of the Gospels. A very simple image, the simplest possible: a young girl lets go a heart-shaped red balloon. The heart is her heart, her aspirations, her love. And here comes the ambivalence: it was blown away by the wind, as we can tell from her hair. The wind is history, injustice, bad luck… So that she lost what is dearest to her, but there is still hope to regain it later in life. This is what the letters on the wall tell us: hope is the uncertain bridging through life of the distance between the girl and her balloon. One could also read the image differently: she lets the balloon go so that it may reach higher, where her dreams and aspirations are. So that her heart may at last meet with her desires, whatever they are. Hope is the distance yet to be covered by the balloon, a balloon which the winds may lead astray. But in any case, hope always implies a separation between the self and the place where it aspires to be. We are reminded of the verses by the great poet René Char (in Recherche de la base et du sommet, 1963-1964): « supprimer la distance tue: les dieux ne meurent que d’être parmi nous » (“to suppress distance kills. The gods only die from being among us”. Banksy’s image is therefore a powerful image of hope itself, whichever way you may choose to interpret the story. Up to this point, the image is really a cute but ultimately banal form of allegory, i.e. a story which illustrates an abstract concept by means of concrete objects or figures; the kind you get printed on T-shirts. 

To this, Banksy added a master twist which plays on several levels of discourse: the “self-shredding” of the canvas immediately after it was sold for 1.4 million dollars at Sotheby’s. This event could justify many pages of comments; let us keep it at a modest paragraph. The shredding could mean the destruction of hope once our desires are satisfied, or about to be satisfied: the collector who bought the piece at great expense was about to see her hopes become true, and thus destroyed them in the act of reaching them. Hope always lies in the distance between the subject and the object, just as you cannot observe at the same time the position and speed of a particle in quantum physics. Either you enjoy hoping, or you hold the object of your hope, and your hope is destroyed in doing so; one cannot hold hope itself as an object: a form of elaborate (and expensive) play on words.  Another level of discourse is that of the value of an art piece (see Piero Manzoni: exploring the economics of artistic aura). In this particular case, the physical destruction – unexpected by the collector – of a fairly expensive art piece, in front of the world’s cameras, has the paradoxical effect of increasing the intrinsic value of what is left of the work, precisely because of the scandal which becomes embedded in the object.

One may also read in this event an allegory of capitalism within that temple of capital that is an auction house, by reference to the creative destruction theorized by Joseph Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. In his work, derived from the ideas of Marx and Werner Sombart, Schumpeter argues that the creative-destructive forces unleashed by capitalism will eventually lead to its demise as a system.  Banksy gives a spectacular illustration of the concept. In a video, he had claimed to have “built a shredder into a painting in case it was ever put up for auction”. And indeed, a shredder was concealed inside the thick gilded frame. The auction house or the expert could have detected an oddity in a “Banksy with a 19th century style gilded frame”, yet another contradiction claiming to be resolved, and resolved it was. But rather than leading capitalism to its demise, it evidenced the resilience of the enemy, which was given a new, exciting opportunity to create financial value. Interestingly, Banksy had managed to transform an object into an event, so that the collector is not owning an artwork anymore, which is gone, but has become the proud owner of an event materialized in an object. Art as a trace, but not the trace of an event registered by some external device like a photography, the event itself made trace.

Banksy is not naïve about the many contradictions which inhabit his work, and his own artistic behaviour. These contradictions are brilliantly captured in Festival (Destroy Capitalism), where you can see a line of eco-punkish-rebel types queuing at a booth to buy for thirty dollars a red tee-shirt with the caption “Destroy capitalism”. We are reminded of the famous quote of Lenin, “the Capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them”; except that in this case “the Anti-capitalists are purchasing the goods with which to nourish capitalism”. In other words, they are the fools, the useful idiots of capitalism, because by its own nature, capitalism transforms into capital any human activity, including those which aim at bringing it down, and by doing so, it protects itself. Festival could summarize the art life of Banksy himself: after years of work, hundreds of stencils, thousands of walls and silk-prints, all dedicated to spreading a half humanistic-half libertarian message, always ready to uncover the misdeeds of Capitalism, he finds himself exhibited in the most prestigious institutions, selling works for millions, transformed into an icon of “chic protest”. He now works for the system, a system which has managed to transform the injustice and scandals which initially provided the material for his art into a money machine and a social phenomenon. Success for the artist as an individual is not in step with success for his messages, at least for now. But the whole adventure of graffiti art was initially meant to enable the derelicts crash the doors of the powerhouse. Banksy is the achievement of that goal, for himself and a few others. Very few others.

Festival (Destroy Capitalism)

This choice, which the exhibition in Ferrara illustrates, contradicts many of the initial premises of graffiti art turned into street art. Perhaps the most obvious one is that public art is meant to defy appropriation. Of course, the message in the shredding of There is always hope could be that, precisely, it could not be appropriated. Although many others of his works were made in order to be appropriated, starting with all the silkscreens. Unless the message is the negation, Magritte-like, of what is written: there is no hope to go against the system, so let us go with it…

An Italian artist going by the pseudonym BLU has taken that injunction of street art seriously. In December 2015, the mayor of Bologna Virginio Merola welcomed a delegation of volunteers who had taken part in the “no tag” cleanup project that the city’s administration launched against “graphic vandalism”; a few months later the city hosted in Palazzo Pepoli the exhibition “Banksy & Co: L’Arte allo Stato Urbano”, organized and financed by a bank’s cultural foundation. That exhibition even showed some of BLU’s work, seemingly without his consent as the curators considered that BLU’s murals belonged to the owner of the building, which is legally correct. BLU then decided to erase his own work from the walls of Bologna, covering them all in grey paint. He wrote, true to the facts: “After having denounced and criminalised graffiti as vandalism, after having oppressed the youth culture that created them, after having evacuated the places which functioned as laboratories for those artists, now Bologna’s powers-that-be pose as the saviours of street art”. This apparent contradiction is hard to solve. BLU’s statement implies that society should pretend to tolerate, and fight not too harshly, an art which negates its principles (rule of law, property…), and should refrain from accepting them as part of its own life. After all, Dada was at least as subversive as street art. There is some hypocrisy in that game of pretense: illegality and mild repression bring an aura to the artist, free of charge. It is the endless opposition between “purists” and “realists”, Banksy belonging very clearly to the latter. However, the “purists” are themselves playing, and pretending from the rest of society, a game of pretense. Purity is an ingredient of their product. The gesture of BLU is the mirror image of the shredding of Banksy.

A recent episode involving the MoCo art center which opened in Montpellier in 2019 is telling: it is reported that the newly-elected socialist mayor wishes to put more emphasis on street art than the director of MoCo seems interested in supporting. Street art has become the cultural ornament of mainstream politicians. A way for the State to demonstrate that it cares, but a way nobody is interested to hear as it lacks eloquence.   

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