Banksy’s street art documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop somehow made its way into the Oscar line-up for best documentary, an unbelievably ironic situation, given that everything Banksy does is in direct opposition to the Hollywood Money Machine and their ridiculous self-congratulating award shows. But the film itself is unbelievably good. Beautiful, hysterical, sardonic, and cool, yet with a subtle poignancy in its central message of how graffiti and other forms of street art make people see their everyday world through a different lens. This perspective shift is not unintentional and is where the true power of the street artist comes into play – many of Banksy’s stencils are beautiful, intriguing, or funny, but in the context of their location, illegality, and temporariness they speak a larger message, one also espoused by such people as Karl Marx, Jacques Lacan, and Slavoj Žižek.
Perhaps the best introduction to Banksy’s work for those unfamiliar with him is the collection of pieces he did on Palestine’s Segregation Wall. The linked article helps explain the context of his work and its importance in making people face some brutal realities about the situation in Palestine. Some of his art can also be found on his website.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about dissent. In this article I focused mainly on the intellectual tradition of dissent, i.e. philosophers, historians, economists, etc. But dissent, being a basic faculty of humanity, comes in many varied forms. Banksy’s pictures can speak a thousand words about global topics in a way that immediately appeals to many people. Banksy’s actions themselves and his methods of propagating his art are dissident. He avoids the standard channels of publication (for the most part, and denies involvement in many things with which his art has been associated) in order to show by example that one can exist, if not outside, certainly on the far-fringes of the capitalist infrastructure. Many of Banksy’s pieces directly address the problem of art-as-commodity. For instance, one Banksy work readers may not even know they’ve seen was a recent Simpsons couch gag that explores the Korean labor employed (exploited) to produce American animation. Time and time again Banksy brings Marxist ideas, specifically alienation and exchange-value/commoditization (something explored in both the title and subject matter of Exit Through the Gift Shop) to the forefront of artistic discussion.
Traditionally, art has been the dominion of the super-rich, not only physically possessing the bulk of the world’s great art (or “graciously” sharing it with museums) but also determining what is art, what is not art, and most importantly, determining the exchange value of each piece. In his book Wall and Piece, Banksy writes:
Art is not like other culture because its success is not made by 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 the quality of most of our culture, but not our art. The Art we look at is made only by 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.
Banksy and other street artists give their work away to the public for free. Not only do they not expect (nor receive) any kind of compensation for their work, they produce their work at great risk to their freedom and sometimes their lives. Why? Why would anyone, first of all, want to put so much effort into something without any foreseeable return? And why would anyone risk going to prison to put it up in such a public place?
To answer the first question, why create something without hope of (monetary) return, one must first open one’s mind to the possibility that capitalism is not the only possible form of social interaction. Marx’s theory of alienation essentially boils down to the idea that the relationships between people will be systematically replaced by the relationship between things (the monetary system.) Our society has proven this dictum true over and over again. Street artists don’t want to establish a relationship based on money. They establish relationships based on ideas. When someone encounters street art in public, one is forced to confront something that established society would prefer to keep hidden. Banksy’s pieces in particular bring social issues to the forebrain of anyone who happens upon them. Using irony, absurdity, and creativity, he presents a simple image of something very, very wrong with our accepted society that typically is unable to penetrate through to the visible surface. It is this goal, this ideological return on their investment of labor, that drives artists to create their work at any cost.
This use of ideas, broken down into simple symbols as a way to permeate a viewer’s mind is more often found in the realm of advertising. Banksy participates in and advocates for anti-advertising, or what he calls “Brandalism.” In Wall and Piece, he writes:
Graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Despite having to creep about at night and lie to your mum it’s actually the most honest artform available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on some of the best walls a town has to offer, and nobody is put off by the price of admission.
The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl their giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to answer back. Well, they started this fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.
In my previous article on dissent I touched on the helplessness the average person feels when confronted with the overwhelming superiority of established power. Banksy argues that graffiti is one path towards empowerment for the disenfranchised. All it takes is one person with one can of spray paint to turn a profane soda billboard into an artistic, political or social statement. In Wall and Piece he writes:
People abuse you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are the advertisers and they are laughing at you … You owe the companies nothing. You especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs [before changing it.]
In addition to Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy has self-published a number of books, though most are currently out of print. In reading Wall and Piece, I noticed that he tells a story here (also found in another of his books, Existencilism) about two artists competing for a king’s favor. Both artists go away and make their work, and then both appear before the king to present their pieces, which are shrouded by a veil. The first artist removes the veil and behind it is a scene so realistic that a bird flies into it to eat one of the painted grapes, collides with the canvas, and falls to the floor. The king doubts this can be topped, but orders the second artist to remove the veil. The artist doesn’t move and remains silent. The king, furious, stands and attempts to remove the veil himself, only to realize that it is a painting of a veil. This story is more than a cryptic explanation of art; it’s an explanation of how art interacts with human psychology. In fact, it’s a story I was familiar with, because it’s told and expanded upon at length in Jacques Lacan’s Seminar XI - Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.
Lacan's purpose in including this story is that what is amazing isn’t what’s behind the veil, but the idea of a hidden truth yet to be revealed – which is why the painting of the veil is superior to anything that the artist could have possibly painted behind it. This veil serves as the core of logo, or branding. Companies spend billions of dollars every year constructing, maintaining, and disseminating their brand. The supremacy of the logo is the supremacy of the symbol. The power of symbols, be they flags, corporate logos, or spray painted rats, is not in what they are, nor in what they are supposed to represent, but rather the gap between what they are and what they represent. A symbol stirs the imagination. It draws allusions and references and connects ideas where previously no connections could be found. The symbol inherently holds more meaning than its referent. The remainder of meaning between the symbol and its referent attracts the human psyche toward that symbol in the (futile) hopes of achieving its full symbolic potential. But, as Lacan points out, the Real can never be wholly integrated into the symbolic. There is always a remainder. Advertisers have used this remainder to mesmerize consumers into believing that their product – whatever it may be – holds the secret to this intangible remainder. But, as Lacan’s objet petit a, the remainder of symbolization can never be acquired. This pattern of manufactured desire, claim to satisfaction, and ultimately failure of satisfaction perpetuates the vicious cycle of consumerism.
Slavoj Žižek further explores the power of this gap in his central work, The Parallax View. Here Žižek explores “short circuits” that reveal the fundamental antagonistic gap between dichotomies, between perspectives, and between symbols and their referents. The connection between Žižek and Banksy may seem like one of these short circuits, but actually they share a very similar worldview. In Existencilism, Banksy writes, “If you want to say something and have people listen then you have to wear a mask. If you want to be honest then you have to live a lie.” In The Parallax View, Žižek writes:
The minimal parallax constellation is that of a simple frame: all that has to intervene in the Real is an empty frame, so that the same things we saw “directly” before are now seen through the frame. A certain surplus-effect is thus generated which cannot simply be cancelled through “demystification.” … Every field of “reality” (every “world”) is always-already enframed, seen through an invisible frame.
One of the minimal definitions of a modernist painting concerns the function of its frame. The frame of the painting in front of us is not its true frame; there is another, invisible frame, the frame implied by the structure of the painting, the frame that enframes our perception of the painting, and these two frames by definition never overlap – an invisible gap separates them. The pivotal content of the painting is not communicated in its visible part, but located in this dis-location of the two frames, in the gap that separates them.
This “invisible frame” is the keystone of Banksy’s work. The Lacanian Real shows itself through the symbolic as an incomprehensible stain, or spot, on an otherwise normal scene. This stain is meant to be understood metaphorically, psychologically, but Banksy makes it tangible. When one looks at a fine, suburban neighborhood, and in the middle on the wall is a stencil of the Mona Lisa holding a rocket launcher, or of two policemen making out, or whatever other tongue-in-cheek stencil Banksy has concocted, one immediately comes in contact with the traumatic kernel of the Real that lurks beneath the otherwise innocuous symbolic. For both Žižek and Banksy, “appearance” is more important than “being.” It is appearance, fiction, falseness, masks, that most effectively reveal being and truth.
The violent, often iniquitous, reaction to graffiti comes from a fear that unauthorized symbolization will not only destabilize the established order, but reveal the illusory (and often cruel) nature of establishment per se. In order to maintain compartmentalization in bourgeois, first-world society, one must reduce the number of dissenting or unauthorized statements, logos, images, phrases, and symbols to the minimum. It is much harder to worry about which brand of detergent to buy when someone is constantly poking you with a stick, reminding you about the inherent contradictions, authoritarian hypocrisy, and ubiquitous inequality of human civilization.
In an age where NATO military forces gun down innocent children it might be worth considering what Banksy writes in Wall and Piece:
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. As a precaution to ever committing major acts of evil it is our solemn duty never to do what we’re told. This is the only way we can be sure.
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