Art, Art Culture, artistic integrity, BANKSY, Benjamin Netanyahu, Book Review, CCTV, Corporate Influence, Discipline and Punish, elitism, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Gaza Wall, graffiti, Humor, Individual Will, Israel, Michel Foucault, monkeys, Palestine, panopticon, Politics, rats, Satire, surveillance, Tate Gallery, Totalitarianism, urban landscape, Wall and Piece
It doesn’t take much to piss off Benjamin Netanyahu, except apparently, spray paint. While looking for photos for a possible essay idea I stumbled upon an image cited on World News Daily Report, a Zionist online newspaper, and after BANKSY has defaced the Gaza wall that separates Palestinians from Jews, along with a few stones from an ancient jewish temple, the Prime Minister is billowing his usual boisterous ballyhoo. Sorry. Couldn’t resist. This isn’t the first time the notorious graffiti artist has actually tagged said wall before. I know this because at one point my little sister was obsessed by the artist BANKSY, particularly one book that I would skim through over and over again.
I’ll admit I’m beginning this essay with great trepidation. That makes me sound like a fucking Victorian novelist, but I am expressing honest concern. I’m not used to writing about art, or artists for that matter, but I know books and so when I finally bought myself a copy of Wall and Piece I placed it on my shelf and immediately forgot about it focusing instead on Jim Henson: The Biography. Muppets trump all you know.
For that last statement I shall be drawn and quartered by rats.
Before my punishment comes though I did want to convey my impression of the importance of such a book, and before the reader assumes that I’ll wax philosophic about the importance of individual expression and the rotting corruption of capitalism, I really just want to look at a few of BANKSY’s paintings and the writings that accompany them in the book.
On the first page BANKSY provides a kind of artistic statement over a picture of himself spray painting the “cut-out” lines that is part of his signature style:
I’m going to speak my mind, so this won’t take very long.
Despite what they say graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Although you might have to creep about at night and lie to your mum it’s actually one of the more honest art forms available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on the best walls a town has to offer and nobody is put off by the price of admission.
A wall has always been the best place to publish your work.
The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit, which makes their opinion worthless.
They say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic off the decline of society, but graffiti is only dangerous in the minds of three kinds of people; politicians, advertising executives, and graffiti writers.
The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl slogans across the buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message un your face from every available surface but you’ve never allowed to answer back. Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.
Some people became cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.
I really don’t want to kiss BANKSY’s ass because the internet is loaded with hipsters, wannabe’s, and “graffiti scholars” who prattle endlessly about the man’s daring, insight, and ability and what gets lost is the real sense of bedlam. BANKSY’s art, the first time a viewer sees it, really shakes you up because it’s unashamedly reminding the viewer that they live in the Panopticon and they’re happy to do so. If the reader has no idea what that is I’ll explain.
In his book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault the French historian describes the modern man as existing in a prison known as the Panopticon. This is based on a real prison design created by Jeremy Bentham during the 1700s. It’s a circular space and on every side are single cells in which prisoners are occupied. Each prisoner cannot look into the other cells and is afforded only the entrance of their cell, which looks out onto the ground floor where a single guard tower is occupied. Within the tower, which has one-way windows, there is a prison guard able to see into every cell. The guard cannot watch every cell at once, but the key idea in the design is that the prisoner can never tell when the guard is watching him. Foucault explains that part of the Postmodern condition is the state in which man is always aware that he is under scrutiny, and as security and traffic cameras have become more and more prolific it becomes difficult for human beings to live without the awareness that somebody, somewhere, is watching them and monitoring their behavior.
BANKSY’s art remains unique then, because he screws the Panopticon, “tagging” the tower with a monkey holding a sign that says “I wish I could get paid to watch people all day,” and reminds people that they’re free. Whether it’s his monkeys reminding people to “Keep it Real,” or his Rats wreaking havoc and reminding people that they’ll rule once again, or else his police officers making out or arresting little girls, BANKSY’s art is subversive for the fact that he doesn’t seem to be pointing a finger at the “oppressor’s” because ultimately the only power they have is within the minds of the governed and consumers.
At this point the reader may roll their eyes and wonder how thick is the foil hat I wear, which is unfortunate because I only wear one layer, that’s all you need to keep the space aliens and CIA away. In all seriousness though this idea isn’t unfounded and Wall and Piece reminds its reader of that as every photo BANKSY provides the reader comes with the location of the piece shown, the date, and usually how long it lasts before it is painted over, taken down, or destroyed.
As he pointed out in the opening section, by openly mocking the institution of public property one can become a criminal, or else vermin rather quickly. I like to think of BANKSY’s art more along the lines of opening the window of the Panopticon. Rather than inviting the chaos of a jailbreak, BANKSY’s book shows through images and brief impressions of life that human beings seem lethargic in the capitalist and government systems, and by having somebody who is willing to deliberately shake that system and not apologize for it, but in fact to claim artistic credibility for it is not only a shock to the system, it offers people the chance to wake up and remember that they can express opinions about how public space is controlled and manipulated and used. Graffitti artists are often sold as either criminals or geniuses, but apart from BANKSY I have yet to really find another artist that fits that description.
That isn’t because of the “mystery” factor, because that’s ultimately fleeting. Every man, every artist, every king, every CEO is ultimately forgotten, their works like the stone legs of Ozymandias standing in an empty sea of desert for miles. The fact that most of BANKSY’s art has already been destroyed by public officials and public servants only further demonstrates that.
What then is the value of a book by BANKSY?
The only answer I have is two small passages. The first involves the Tate Gallery, the second returns the reader to Gaza.
Before BANKSY places his copy of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and provides a small little clip about his sister destroying most of his art, there’s a two-page spread of him posting a picture up in the Tate Gallery in London and he provides two paragraphs:
Art is not like other culture because its success is not made its audience. The public fill concert halls and cinemas every day, we read novels by the millions and buy records by the billions. We, the people, affect the making and quality of most of our culture, but not our art.
The art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit, and decide the success of Art. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say. When you go to an Art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.
It’s difficult to really assess honest recognition, or really it’s difficult to describe it and then explain it out. BANKSY’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop did a marvelous job of demonstrating the way that art is held firmly in the grip of a super class that enjoy the privilege of possessing art for themselves, often simply for the sake of owning it or appearing to derive some pleasure from it. As a writer you’re afforded some freedom in that regard. True a few collectors may own the first editions of a book you have written, but depending on the success of your book there’s always reprints and so there is solace there. The artist, whether they paint or sculpt, can find their work appropriated by the rich if said social club decides that their work is “in” this season.
The best example is a self-portrait by BANKSY which recently sold £198,000. A rat painted onto the side of a cell-phone shack would have been cleaned off within a weak, and now the avant-garde are devouring the works of graffiti artists desperate to get in on the hype oblivious to the creative intent.
I look back to Gaza however, for in 2005 BANKSY went to Palestine and “tagged” the walls dividing the Palestinians from the Jewish communities, and while he painted he was approached by an old man who spoke to him:
Old Man: You make the wall look beautiful
Old Man: We don’t want it to be beautiful. We hate this wall, go home.
Rats bother human beings because they bite people, they spread disease, they destroy the infrastructure of homes, and they tend to live off of refuse. But what I believe bothers human beings about rats the most is not that they’re ugly or nasty, it’s the fact that they tend to survive in the same environments as humans and they don’t mind being nasty or dirty to do so. Rats in many ways offer up a mirror image to those that live in the cold concrete of urban environments and BANKSY offers up a summation himself:
They exist without permission. They are hated, hunted and persecuted. They live in quiet desperation amongst the filth. And yet they are capable of bringing entire civilizations to their knees.
If you are dirty, insignificant and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model.
As I said before I’m unused to writing about art, but fortunately for me BANKSY offers up writing alongside his work and so in that I am able to gain an impression of the creative goal of Wall and Piece. Mankind in the 21st century is surrounded by space and places that do not belong to them. They live in a space that is constantly filled with corporate advertisement that are entirely impersonal and ruthlessly mercenary. They rely on infrastructure paid for with their tax dollars but owned by their government. These realities divorce people from the fact that they exist and have free will or even choice. The choices usually offered in the hyper-capitalist society tend to devolve down to whether or not you should buy Burger King or McDonalds. BANKSY’s book takes pot-shots at corporations, government, and mundane realities not to judge society or place himself above it, but just to remind people that the power these institutions derive is not from divinity or supreme power, but truly from the individual consumer. It’s the person who buys the Dr. Pepper thinking the pirate, or rocket ship, or monster truck logo on the wrapper in some way defines their personality oblivious to the fact that every bottle contains the same substance.
The Panopticon of CCTV, McDonalds, Disneyland, and Traffic cameras may always be watching, but there’s a kind of victory by scribbling a rat holding a sign that says “We will Rule” on the walls, if only so that someone will see you and be offended by your very existence.
Here’s the article below that started up my inspiration for this essay, or at least the gumption to attempt it. I have no idea if this website is legit or not, and honestly I really don’t care because even if it wasn’t true it did give me the kick in the ass to try and write about a book about art.
I do NOT condone the defacing of public or private property for amusement or “artistic purposes,” unless it is for entirely selfish or badass reasons, then by all means go ahead.
Just in case, if BANKSY is reading this I love your work I promise I am not an art whore who will kiss your ass.