Monday, December 3, 2007

what are you looking at?

A show of Banksy works-- prints, some original works on wood and canvas, some quirky "installations"-- is on view at Vanina Holasek on 27th street Dec 2- 29 2007. Apparently this show of Banksy's work is unauthorized by Banksy-- a symbol of the machinery of the art world turning on its own.

The unauthorized show in NYC is perhaps not more than the shaking of a cash cow, yet it touches the very conundrum of Banksy. Banksy, a British graffiti artist who has been writing on the streets of Bristol, London, and wherever else he finds himself since the late 1980's, now finds himself very much in the art world spotlight. Graffiti is illegal in the UK, as here, and Banksy has attempted to maintain his anonymity even while his profile is on the rise. Our hunt for Banksy reflects our hunt for all we treasure and yet which evades us: we must trap it, and unravel it, in the process extinguishing it.

It is also a story of worlds colliding. Graffiti writing is by definition self-expression in public, to a wide public audience, without the presence of self, ego or identity-- not that writers don't have these, but that they are channeled through the work, not alongside it. Nowadays, in the ship on fire that is our contemporary art market, the personality is essential to understanding and appreciating the artwork. A recent New Yorker interview with Jeffrey Deitch notes that he "admires most the [artists] whose work is indistinguishable from their life." This is the view often taken by people who are not artists, a demand for virtue of some sort.

What separates Banksy from other graffiti writers is his aesthetic, and his intended audience. Banksy clearly has a keen and sensitive mind. His work is cutting (anti-government, -war, -coppers, -media, -culture, etc) and also incredibly sentimental. I would venture that it is his romantic disposition that has driven all of this: a desire to make a grand statement, the belief that it would stir others, and the continual return to doing. A true cynic would never have kept it up.

In the framework of language, his work trades in the currency of recognizable imagery, paired with a "true" statement-- a statement which evades our sugar-coating, they way we are programmed to think when we see something, even if that thought is not really ours. In example: a Banksy work in which across an empty wall-level billboard, Banksy writes: "The joy of not being sold anything". This is the pairing of something which you are numb to-- the continuous presence of advertising-- with the sudden realization that it doesn't have to be so.

That Banksy has had to remain anonymous-- for obvious legal reasons-- initially kept him on the outside of an art world which honors the celebrity. Now, in full reversal, he is a celebrity-- a celebrity of the mind and media. His "stuff" gets harder and harder to do, as people seek him out in the night, cameras ready.

I think in a way Banksy is one of our cultural heroes. We have so few of them now. Someone who gives to all of us a sentimental and bold gift, that frees us for one minute from the dull rigidity of our expectations. Someone who defies the societal machine we give so much of our lives to, a defiance that we feel by proxy when we apprehend his work. Then again, maybe Jeffrey Deitch is right after all: we seek to ascribe virtue, passion, dedication, heroism, and asceticism to our artists. Those qualities long since vanished from American culture, we look for them in the world of fantasy, of infinite possibility, of art.

More on Banksy:
A New Yorker article on Banksy May 2007.
Interview with Banksy by Simon Hattenstone.