Transforming Mona Lisa into a new shape
Spray paint stencil
More of Banksy’s work can be found at http://www.banksy.co.uk
In last August 2009, Bristol, the most populous city in South West England, was packed with a huge crowd. In front of Bristol’s City Museum & Art Gallery, people had to stand in line for up to six hours to see an exhibition of their own world-famous artist, Banksy. Bristol is his hometown and he is an artist who tends to hold a narrative structure and investigate public aspects of the visual art by various methods. He raises diverse contemporary issues through his famous street art, and questions what is the essence of the art, the role of artists and the nature of appreciation behind his insistence. Banksy has concealed himself thoroughly behind a veil of anonymity. He makes his art under an assumed name. People call him a ‘guerrilla artist’ or an ‘art terrorist.’
One of his famous quality vandal performances was to stealthily hang his own work, ‘Early Man Goes to Market’, in the British Museum. It even had a caption that the work was an example of primitive art, which was, of course, a hoax. Besides the British Museum, he secretly exhibited his novel artworks in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. Museum managers never realised that these works were hung inside until the artist revealed their presence. Surprisingly, the British Museum made the decision to add the work to a list of permanent collections. Banksy’s intention to perform these events was that he had a strong desire to ridicule art gallery managers who were not able to draw a line between masterpieces and counterfeit works, and suggest sarcastically what criteria made a great piece at the same time.
Banksy is a public artist and the form his public art takes is what is often described as graffiti art. His subjects are mainly issues such as politics, society, environment, capitalism, anti-war movement and peace. However, his motivation is based on the idea that he would like to change the world to be better and brighter by reporting the irrationalities of society to the public and satirizing absurd stereotypes. He once said ‘Some people become 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’ (2005). The reason why he has managed to maintain complete anonymity and even entrusts an interview to his representative is because under British law, graffiti is considered an act of vandalism. In order to avoid any illegal excuse he remains anonymous which means he enjoys the freedom of outspoken creation.
Parody is one of mechanisms that have had more than enough usage in contemporary art. An issue is that parody in a work can be defined differently amongst other mechanisms such as plagiarism, theft, citation, borrowing and pastiche owing to the direction of intention. Banksy’s strategy is to borrow old master paintings everyone knows and indicate the source clearly so that he cannot be accused of plagiarism or theft. Therefore, no one has objections to the rationality and legitimacy of his works by disclosing the source. Instead his parody seems to be utilized as a tool to bring up universal issues such as environment, religion, war, race and recovering traditional values against authorities. As a parodist, Banksy’s work contains his strong insistence on returning to tradition in the true sense of the term by obviously showing pre-existing issues of our society, and he demonstrates his interest and consideration of historicity and sociality.
One of his outstanding parodied works is based on Edward Hopper and Jack Vettriano. Hopper’s Nighthawks is parodied to criticize British chauvinism in dispatching troops to Iraq for the Iraq War, and he parodied Vettriano’s The Singing Butler to demonstrate opposition to the war. In particular he transformed Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece Mona Lisa into a combatant with a rocket launcher. Also, naughty Mona Lisa lifting her hips is a kind of gesture to take off the masterpiece’s mask of authorities symbolizing the highest masterpiece in history.
Rats and children are his most frequently used images. They are often used as a tool of personification and their roles vary. A rat holds a placard while wearing a ‘peace sign’ around its neck, sometimes they carry a marker or a spray can for graffiti. The implication of using rats seems to be a desire of the artist himself. As rats rummaging through a ditch ask for peace and freedom, they play a role to speak for the minorities who were castrated by the authority.
Children are also one of his favourite subject matters. They are often used in scenes in which they are sacrificed to violence and unfairness. The famous Vietnam Napalm Girl who ran through flames during the Vietnam War now comes out along with Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse, which makes for a bittersweet comment on today’s consumerist society based on money and greed. Apart from these kinds of works, which criticise capitalism dominating the mind indirectly, innocent children in Banksy’s works are constantly suffering from an unjust society. Even though his works make people laugh because of a keen satire on society, they also encourage people to think and question the world around them.
Most of his works comment on the Government and/or authority, which are always depicted in a negative view. He calls himself an anarchist. Uniformed police officers in his works uncover their personal desires. When they get undressed out of their uniforms, they are no longer police officers and reveal insidiousness of authority and power behind uniforms.
His main canvas is the wall itself. Like more established artists such as Barbara Kruger and New York’s Guerrilla Girls he also uses the wall. As well as painting directly on the wall, he sometimes uses more traditional mediums such as paper and canvases. In particular, he loves to use the stencil technique, which allows a graffiti artist a neater and more desired effect. It is a popular technique for many street artists as is allows for a quick departure. Banksy is not tied down by a need for specialised spaces for exhibition such as more typical art gallery and museum settings. Moreover, he attempts to communicate with the public transcending both legality and illegality, which is why his paintings should be included in the realm of public art.
While stenciling on walls around the city, Banksy shows his artistic attitude, which is generally based on urbanism. His main stage is, as everyone knows, the city and his works are quite provocative towards oppression, coercion, hypocrisy and authority for indiscriminate development by people living in the city. In instances where Banksy has hung fake pieces of ‘art’ in world-famous galleries including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Louvre Museum and the Brooklyn Museum, the purpose has always embodied a message of resistance. His principle aim is for an open society escaping an inflexible thinking posture and liberating people’s pressure from uniformed governance in terms of showing interest in minorities and the Third World countries. At this point, Banksy seeks to revive a neglected class of people who do not fit in to the typical high-art scene largely due to elitist nature of the arts.
Banksy says, ‘As far as I can tell the only thing worth looking at in most museums of art is all the schoolgirls on daytrips with the art departments.’ He casts blame with the modern art galleries who choose to display artworks in the middle of white-painted spaces and announce that it is art just because it is in the art gallery. In one of his particularly famous displays of revolt he sprayed ‘Mind the crap’ on the steps of the Tate Britain before the Turner Prize ceremony, unlike other artists, his works do not need the white wall of art gallery to make a statement. Strong images involving social issues attract people’s attention and can have a lot of influence over their values and opinions. His underlying attitude denies the commercialisation of the art. In the mean time, Banksy paradoxically has become commercialized, as a result of his notoriety, and the fact that his works have now been hung on the white walls of art galleries, he has forever resisted. It could be seen that what people want to get from Banksy’s works is not an earnest discussion over a true value of the art or discussion on social issues which Banksy likes to evoke, but instead a hot issue or easily accessible topic in order to satisfy their curiosity.
It is noteworthy that Banksy has now become a figure of the artistic establishment, despite his best efforts. It will be interesting to keep an eye on his position in the art realm, to see whether he will be remembered just as the Lupin, the phantom thief in the arts, or rather will be seen as a creative pioneer in the evolution of making and displaying public street art.
Banksy, Banksy; Wall and Piece, London, The Random House UK, 2005
Brassett, James, British irony, global justice: a pragmatic reading of Chris Brown, Banksy and Ricky Gervais, Review of International Studies, 35, 219–245, Cambridge University Press, 2009
Weaver, Helen, Banksy Bristo city museum and art gallery, Art in America, Vol. 97 Issue 8, p.157, 2009