As I wrote last week, Banksy — the street artist as bankable brand, the master showman — to me is Mr. Meh. His black silhouette figures, surreptitiously painted on walls around the city, strike me as formulaic tweaked political cartooning, and anarchy-lite. Media hype, pseudopunk agitprop, design, advertising, a fun sideshow. That his identity is secret only lends an allure of the forbidden; that his work has fetched more than $1 million at auction zaps his presence into a media circus. Which is fun. But as an artist, Banksy is a repetitive thinker; see one of his things, and you’ve basically seen them all. His illustrations are as much art as The Amazing Race is about travel or Dancing With the Stars is about dance.
What Banksy is great at, however, is generating wild amounts of public reaction. This morning, getting off the subway at 79th Street and Broadway, I found a crowd of maybe 50 people gawking and pointing cameras at, posing with, placing babies in front of, and talking about a Banksy painting on the side of a DSW*. It was a kid with a huge sledgehammer hitting a fire hydrant, like one of those circus tests of strength. Cool, clever, fun. Another street artist had screwed a large sheet of Plexiglas over the Banksy and painted the words “Let the Streets Decide” over it. Everyone there was loving it. Richard Santiago, a former subway tagger, told me that he’d been going around the city taking pictures of Banksys, and temporarily removed the Plexi in order to get a better picture. Two amused cops looked on as the crowd started snapping pictures like crazy. A man told me it was about “child labor.” Another woman said she and her son traveled to Rome, Paris, and London to see Banksys. Wow!
I suddenly got what the reaction to Banksy is about: It’s being part of the reaction to a Banksy. It’s a multiplying communal occasion, friendly, a way to talk to strangers and share a piece of New York. It’s anti-Establishment, anti-capitalist, and anti-art-world enough to add a frisson of libertarian rebellion and take-it-to-the-street cred. No, I’m not a fan — and this morning, I loved doing art criticism in public, playing a balding Jewish Sister Wendy, arguing with everyone, trying and failing to convince onlookers that Banksy’s art is conventional political realism and doesn’t pack anywhere near the formal or psychological incendiary wallop of, say, the artist Kara Walker, who’s been making cutout paper silhouettes of slave life for almost twenty years. The experience was so charged with possibility I suggested taking a bunch of the crowd up with me to MoMA, where we could do this in front of Picasso’s staggering masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Till that happens, you might find me trolling other Banksys. (Video produced by Abraham Riesman.)
* This post has been corrected, as it originally stated that the painting was on the side of a coffee shop.