In Praise of Banksy
He divides opinion, but does important work
Last week the British street artist Banksy visited Ukraine where he created several pieces in the ruins of bombed out buildings in urban locations around the country. A series of murals appeared in the town of Borodianka, which was pummelled by Russian bombs at the beginning of the invasion and which was the site of a massacre of hundreds of citizens. One of the murals depicts a man resembling the Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is known for his love of judo, being thrown to the floor by a young boy.
Another mural in nearby Irpin shows a gymnast wearing a neck brace performing with a ribbon defiantly and proudly on top of a gaping hole in a wall. Later Banksy posted this video about his Ukraine trip on his instagram feed.
Banksy has been working as a street artist since the 1990s, and his site-specific works appear in towns and cities around the world. His work is a critical commentary on major global issues, including the dynamics of power and political authority, consumerism and capitalism. It is essentially political activism presented in a way that is easy to understand and access. Some of his pieces have become familiar images in our lexicon of visual culture, like this stencil which appeared on the wall of a pub in Brighton (UK) in 2004 depicting two male policemen kissing.
Many people call his work vandalism and a public nuisance. It is, after all, graffiti. You’re likely to be heading into a bit of a nightmare if you wake up to find a Banksy on the side of your house. However, local authorities don't always rush to paint over Banksy’s pieces when they appear on public property because they know the cultural value of his work. In fact they often try to preserve it to attract tourists. After all, art has been deliberately used as a catalyst for regeneration by town planners for years.
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Banksy also gets a lot of grief because his work is so valuable now. His roots are in the early days of street art when it was all about reclaiming public space and working outside the art world system. Now his work sells on the secondary auction market for silly money, and the prints that he sells go for upwards of £25,000. So some people ask how he can be a critic of the capitalist system when he does so well from it? How can he provide satirical commentary on the conventional art world whilst also being a beneficiary of it? How does that sit with an artist who came to fame because of his anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist messages?
Apparently he gives away a lot of his money to charity. But in any case I have no problem with artists making money, they do a valuable job. He’s got to operate in this capitalist system like the rest of us, so I just think give him a break on that. He can be critical of the effects of capitalism and the unequal systems of power that it creates, but he still needs to earn money to live.
I also get the sense that some of his critics believe that street art isn’t really ‘proper’ art, because it exists outside of the art world Establishment. He doesn’t need to be represented by a commercial gallery, he goes directly to the public. Plus his work is accessible, it’s easy to understand, it’s funny, and it’s there on the street for all to see. He’s a household name. He’s mainstream. And that can bring out snobbery.
Banksy’s visit to Ukraine isn’t the first time he has made work in war-torn locations. He has long been outspoken about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Back in 2005 he visited the West Bank separation wall and made a number of pieces on the Palestinian side of the barrier. In a clear public statement of his views Banksy pulled no punches, describing the wall as a 'disgrace' and that it ‘essentially turns Palestine into the world's largest open prison.'
In 2015 Banksy returned to Gaza to raise awareness of the conflict, documenting the devastation caused by Israeli bombing campaigns. He made several pieces amongst the ruins of Gaza and a spoof video portraying it as a tourist hotspot:
And then in 2017 he set up the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem. It's part-hotel, part-gallery, and is advertised as having the 'worst view in the world' because it is located right next to the separation wall. It's under Israeli military control, but all roads to get to it are part of the Palestinian territories.
You might not agree with his views, but Banksy undoubtedly draws attention to political and social issues that need more public awareness and discussion. His work sparks debate and makes people think. And he is so popular now that his new projects circulate in the media like wildfire. As other news has increasingly taken over from the blanket coverage of the war in Ukraine in the early days, Banksy’s touching images from bombed out urban landscapes remind us once again of the resilience of Ukrainians as the first line of defence in Europe against despotism. And the necessity of standing in solidarity with them. This kind of art is essential, and in my view Banksy does important work.
I like Banksy's work in general and totally get that he's advocating a particular perspective because of his own beliefs but I don't agree with that perspective when it comes to Israel/Palestine. The political situation there is more nuanced than what his work suggests. It's not as simple as 'one side is right and the other is wrong'. But it's good to keep the subject in public awareness so that we can continue to talk about it.
I've always loved Banksy's work. He's a constant, always popping up somewhere, and I find that weirdly reassuring. He's like an institution, sort of like the Queen (when she was alive!). I love his satire. Agree with you Victoria that his work, and other street artists like him, is essential.