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seeing out loud

Jerry Saltz on New York Graffiti Artists, Banksy, and Al Jazeera Fear

Another day, another Banksy. This one was on West 24th Street (the guy's second or third one near the galleries; methinks he doth protest too much). The image this time: an idiotic dog-shadow peeing on a fire-hydrant thing. There's a thought balloon drifting from the hydrant that says, "You complete me." Really? That's what people think is "so great" and "important" and so politically pointed? Really? I did a TV segment about it yesterday, this one for the Al Jazeera network, and while doing so I had two real experiences  — not the hyped-up shit.

As in the other interviews I've done, whenever I'd ask anyone on the street, "Hey! You wanna be on TV with me to talk about this art?" the person would instantly say yes. They'd walk up to me, on camera; I'd point, they'd get ready to speak, and then ask me, "Oh. What station is this for?" Yesterday, I said "It's for Al Jazeera." Whoa! Almost everyone freaked out and backed away. They started saying things "I don't know" or "Aren't they bad?" Almost everyone said no. Stunned, I kept pleading: "No, no. It's okay. I'm a Jewish art critic." That didn't seem to help, at all. And I'd stand there alone with people staring at me like I was the Arab Street.

The second fascinating interaction I had came as I stared out at the gathered crowd and they stared back at me, not the Banksy. It was eerie. But in this eeriness I started focusing in on something else I've been noticing on every one of these Banksy visits, something I hadn't quite let myself know before. The Banksy crowds have not been as homogenous and "Kum-ba-ya" as reports show.

At each one of these scenes, I've spied certain guys — all black or brown males in their twenties — hovering just on the edge of the crowds gathered around whatever Banksy I'm talking about. This time I walked through all the other people and asked them, "What do you think of this Banksy guy?" Every single one of the guys I spoke to (none of whom knew one another) told me that he was a graffiti writer from either Brooklyn, the Bronx, or Queens. Every one of them expressed the same dislike or worse for Banksy's thing. Each mentioned how Banksy was trying to generate publicity and was not "a real street artist." They used words like public relations, hype, and self-promotion. Odder still, the Al Jazeera reporters told me they'd heard the same thing from some graffiti writers that they'd just interviewed in Brooklyn.

To every one of them, I said, "Boom! Exactly. That's what I think, too. The guy's an act, not an artist; he's a brilliant opportunist. You gotta hand it to him." People like Banksy because other people have liked Banksy, and liking a Banksy becomes a way of feeling like you're part of something, participating in the group mind. Of course, each of them then asked me, "Why don't you cover us like this, then?"

That's when I went full art critic on them. "Look," I said, "You're all just jealous. I get that. I don't blame you. I hate Banksy as much as you do. But at least he stands out. He makes his sort of stencil-appropriation realistic thing that everyone can recognize, that doesn't look like anything else. Then he promotes the crap out of it. And disappears. That's his act. The rest of you guys? I have no problem with graffiti or whatever. The problem is that you all do pretty much the same exact conventional thing. You know, swirly, ornate spray-painted letters, usually your name, usually in Day-Glo. Or you make pretty obvious political poster things. Banksy at least looks different. Even though he's no good, he has found a way to make his mark and have it noticed. And even to make a difference in people's inner lives. That's a kind of genius."

Like many artists who hear criticism of their work, these guys denied it, and one gave me a stock set of instant answers. (All artists do this; they listen politely, then deny pretty much everything you said and explain what they think they're doing.) He said things like, "Banksy uses stencils. We don't do that. We paint the way we paint because we have to do it in five minutes or we'll be arrested. What we do is illegal. We all use spray paint because it's fast. We write our names because we want to take back part of our city. We paint for our neighborhoods." Playing street critic, I came back and said that Banksy paints fast too. He uses stencils because it takes a minute of two and then he's gone. There's nothing invalid about using stencils. What he's doing is illegal, too, although at this point I doubt that he'd be arrested, were he caught. (He'd probably end up in the news and make more money.) We couldn't come to an agreement. As with most artists, he was tenacious that his way was the right way, and that my claims that much graffiti art looks the same and employs the same bag of conventional tools were invalid. To him, this was okay. To me, it was okay but not art. While I loved bringing my Jewish Sister Wendy art-critic act to the street, the only thing we could agree on was that Banksy isn't all that he's cracked up to be.

That, and one more thing: He wouldn't let me film him with Al Jazeera, either.

Photo: Courtesy of Bansky