Three weeks ago, renowned graffiti artist Banksy started a 30-day “show” in New York entitled Better Out Than In: an Artist’s Residency on the Streets of New York. Each day the enigmatic and elusive artist (we still don’t know his identity) posts a picture to his website and Instagram account of a new piece gracing some part of New York. On the first day of the Instagram account, which now has over 200,000 followers, Banksy posted a photo of his first work, with his comment, “The street is in play Manhattan 2013 #banksyny.” Indeed, Banksy has used the street walls of NYC as canvas for whimsical pieces, from a dog pissing on a hydrant with a dialogue bubble reading “You complete me,” to a plastic heart-shaped balloon with band aids on it. Banksy also availed himself of original sculptures, like Ronald McDonald receiving a shoe shine, and makes a clever use of trucks. One Banksy piece is an installation on wheels: a truck driving through the city streets with stuffed livestock-animal dolls with their cute heads sticking out of the sides, seemingly on their way to the slaughter, and another he calls a mobile garden, a dirty looking delivery track carrying an spray-painted oasis in its carriage. Yet, in all the attempts at playfulness an overwrought seriousness has crept into the project. Many Banksy devotees appear offended—almost personally slighted—by how some New Yorkers deign to treat these pristine works of art.
Indeed, some of Banksy’s installments have been either painted over, or painted on, or tagged by other graffiti artists. The way the pieces are embedded into the city’s environment, it is perhaps unsurprising that just a day after the first Banksy went up, it was painted over; the piece was tagged, “(c) PHATLIPP Sweaty palms made me lose the love of my life ):” This one guy tagged a few pieces, which elicited more graffiti responses, these making fun of him, but also an outpouring of hate and vitriol on the Internet. (A representative comment from one commenter on Banksy’s Instagram: “Fuck those jealous losers that ruin your art. They are just mad that their ugly scribbles don’t get the attention you get.”) Even when more creative additions and replication went up as with Banksy’s, “Concrete Confessional”, people still felt affronted by what they perceived as defacing of art. That many people, en masse have taking to denigrating anyone who might think to tag, or add to, or otherwise “deface” a precious Banksy betrays a static and empty (though understandable) idea of art, an idea that undermines the greatness of graffiti.
Graffiti art, let’s remember, is purposefully one of the less controlled and more transient of art forms. It is inherently communal.
We like to think of our art as contemporary yet timeless, something to cherish forever, to return to, to deepen our minds and our hearts through repeated viewing and consumptions. We make collections of art objects, of recordings. We can currently horde our arts in an unprecedented manner: lifetimes worth of music on our iPods, the Library of Congress on our Kindles, with the accumulation of all cultures on our hard drives. And perhaps all this collecting has taken the place of experiencing art. Maybe our unprecedented access to an untold quantity of art and entertainment has affected how we consume it. You can always return to a painting, an album, a book; you can feel more assured in its existence, its persistence. But deep down we know that you can never re-experience art. Each encounter hits us differently, and nothing will ever alleviate the definitional transience of beauty. Yet, our newfound ability to horde art inevitably makes us somewhat passive in our reception. In this era of consumptive collection, reverence easily turns into snobbiness, into ossification and stagnancy.
Not that art doesn’t deserve this kind of allegiance and reverence. Elaine Scarry explains in her seminal On Beauty and Being Just that art demands replication: “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Scarry then goes on to explain that replication isn’t simply preservation, replication entails giving back, treating beauty as fluid, not stable, replication offers an opportunity for a response. Responses can and ought to entail something as simple as taking a picture, or a more sophisticated response. More than many of the artistic forms, graffiti taps into this playfulness of replication and the underlying transience of art that replication seeks to confront. Banksy hints at this in one of his better NYC pieces. In it, we see a worker beginning to wash off graffiti from a wall that read, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” The quote, taken from the movie Gladiator, plays with our conceptions of high and low art, but also speaks to the evanescence of art, especially street art. It feels as though, at the second the sentence was written it was destined for erasure—as apt a description of the transience of art as any I could think of.
Owners of buildings with Banksy art have taken to hiring guards, putting up plexiglass, rolling gates, and ropes to create lines, all of which is practical but undermines the purpose of these 30 days. Graffiti art, let’s remember, is purposefully one of the less controlled and more transient of art forms. It is inherently communal, whether in the enjoyment or in its genesis and longevity. Performance art, of course, is more fleeting by definition, but both graffiti and performance art take away much of the control from the artist, whether limiting themselves in time or creating a painting that will necessarily be under the community’s control. Both though, tend to raise a strange frustration in people, perhaps because these forms so diverge from our traditional notions of art as eternal, as belonging in a museum. Graffiti takes the city as its canvas, the walls, alleyways, and windows of lived life, an intrusion of art into the stuffiness of the city, but always as part of the city. To then treat it as an objet d’art, to quarantine it off, transforms it and takes it out of its natural and proper context. Banksy once wrote, “Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.” But can you imagine the outrage if someone were to take a piss on or even next to one of the new Banksies?
In the last two weeks, owners of buildings with Banksy art have taken to hiring guards, putting up plexiglass, rolling gates, and ropes to create lines, all of which is practical and perhaps understandable but undermines much of the purpose of these 30 days. All of these protections simply turn these outdoors, public pieces into indoor museum pieces, introducing a sterility that subverts the spirit of the project. These tactics isolate the art from the bustling environment. The viewer becomes passive, just another viewer waiting in line, no longer a participant. From a theoretical perspective, this all seems backwards. The owners of the building, from the perspective of the actual graffiti art, ought to hold no more rights than the community in deciding what to do with the graffiti..
Just yesterday, when a teenager tried to “deface” the latest Banksy on the Upper West Side, he was tackled by another person and yelled at by the crowds, which sort of proves the point: Banksy, a graffiti artist, defaces a wall, to acclaim, and another graffiti artist tries to deface Banksy but gets yelled at and tackled. The interaction, caught on video, shows much of the unspoken and unwritten rules of communal interaction and art, though that a person was pushed to protect art makes me think we are missing the point.
One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet suddenly cuts through a certain patch of sky. For me, what’s so great about this Banksy adventure is its very transience; he is playfully giving us an occasion to reenvision the aesthetics of New York, of how it looks, of what we do choose to color our street: absurd and gaudy advertising, oversized and bloated signs of chain stores, impossible models, endless opportunities to give up our money on this and that sale or something more lofty and artistic? In searching for Banksy, we might open our eyes to the the creativity and unexpected visual disruptions that the city supplies all on its own. Banksy’s show displays not only his genius, but the potential brilliance of the city itself. His project makes the city streets spontaneous and unabashedly fun. For that we need to treat his work as art that is truly public, not relics demanding protection.
Banksy, the responses to his New York show, and the fleeting nature of the works themselves remind us of something we often forget. In Scarry’s words:
“This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet suddenly cuts through a certain patch of sky.”
Banksy’s works reminds us of the continual need to attune ourselves to the path of beauty, not simply to a concrete beautiful object. All art makes us better viewers and creators of new art. Worshipping the specific art piece then, while understandable, hinders this type of lifelong education keeps the streets of NYC, or anywhere, out of play.