My boyfriend Phil got some books the other day on stencil graffiti after coming across a pretty good collection of work by Banksy, English-born artist who specializes in amusing irreverence. We’ve been trying to come up with something fun and non-traditional in design for when we get around to painting the house when the weather gets warmer.
The Banksy book was the best. It had more than just pictures of his work, which expanded on any preconceived limitation of what graffiti is, not just because he was using stencils rather than working in colorful freeform, but he even expanded pieces to multiple planes and even structures beyond walls or public transport. That style has been co-opted now, as most of the gems of the underground will when their existence is publicized in various media, but Banksy’s work had an underlying theme: a leftist, Rousseau-like drive to annihilate the boundaries and this publicized notion that graffiti is a dirty act, evidence of social ills and urban decay, rather than one of legitimate reason and artistic creation. At the core, he is challenging social acceptance of control and this amazing stupid understood rule that public display must always be pre-approved, and usually only limited to those in commerce and government (essentially, “Establishment”). In one part of the book, amidst an extensive collection of photos, he asks people to envision this imaginary world where anyone was allowed to create and that anyone could make those creations public.
The latter half of the book features other social experiments that employ the same idea. Disguised, Banksy would go into museums and would inconspicuously display his own works of art and the accompanying plaque that would wonderfully mock the self-indulgent bullshit of display in modern museums. It was curious that he’d be able to get away with something like that, especially in the larger museums like the National Gallery in London. Underneath a picture of the display, and sometimes snaps of Banksy in the act while guards slept and other museum visitors remained oblivious, was a note about the estimated duration that the work remained in the museums. One lasted in the Tate for about 2 weeks. Some – only 2 hours. There was one painting that was of a generic brand can of soup. A single pop art painting done just like Warhol’s Campbell Soup label. He said he stayed and watched to see what would happen next, noting that a man came by and stared at it for a few minutes before walking away looking confused and a little cheated. “I feel like a true modern artist,” Banksy said. It was something I never thought anyone would have the balls to do.
Maybe he was inspired by the 1970s work of streety feminist artists, The Guerrilla Girls (who ironically, have a piece hanging in the National Women’s Museum here in DC).
His work forces those who enforce these absurd rules as well as those who quietly or loudly accept this to realize the stupidity in it (as is obviously the definition of satire). There’s a quote in the book that surprisingly echoed something I used to write in a how-to on zine-making in my old zines when I was in college: that not many people take the initiative because they’re never encouraged to do so. That’s quite a powerful, succinct summary about much of the way we’re socialized throughout our lives: control and guidance by various hierarchies that we, individually or collectively, defer to.
Banksy, you’re my hero!