Banksy: Street Art Hero, or Sell Out?

Dismaland; it’s a clear, blue Sunday afternoon, and much to the annoyance of the staff, the sun is shining – taking the edge off what is meant to be a gloomy experience in the somewhat bleak English seaside town of Western super Mare.

I find myself in the gift shop, which is disguised as a pay day loans company for children. Their slogan: “Get out of debt with a loan” is emblazoned across posters featuring children high on a sugar pipe (because selling children drugs is illegal).

As I bounce up and down with excitement on the conveniently placed trampoline, waiting to pay for a bag displaying a tabloid headline instructing me to “Keep Fucking Buying”, the irony of it all consumes me. Pop has definitely eaten it’s self.

The concept of an all-encompassing, interactive, 3D street art experience – presented in the form of a run-down and miserable theme park – could just be the future of street art. After all, where do you go after making images for people to look at? In Dismaland, you are being placed quite literally in the picture.

We all nod sagely, and those of us with beards give them a thoughtful stroke. It’s definitely ‘a Banksy’.

Banksy has courted controversy his entire career. Of course, in the beginning, that conflict was mainly with the law, for let us not forget street art and graffiti are illegal, and destruction of property – no matter how brilliant and pretty that destruction may be may be – can carry some pretty weighty legal implications, including the loss of one’s freedom (AKA jail time).

But, over time the undeniable intellectual value of his work changed the world’s perception of the genre. Here was a person jeporadising not only their personal freedom, but also their own safety, in order to create these thought provoking images in some of the most dangerous places in the world. Not for financial gains, but to spread love in a way that any person from any background could understand.

Sometimes referred to as a genius; trouble maker; prophet; peacemaker; and general rapscallion, over time Banksy’s name has also attracted a less than complimentary complement: sell out.

And as such, Banksy has become for us a human jar of Marmite, complete with two camps – one for love and one for hate. But what sparked the backlash?

Consumerism.

Street art and graffiti are by their very nature subversive past times. Those who submerge themselves in the murky waters of underground subcultures, such as the world of street art, do so because they have shunned the mainstream. They view commercialism, and all of its trappings, with complete distain, and have rejected our vapid, money obsessed society in favour of something they believe to hold deeper and higher meaning. Something real.

This means, of course, that the more commercial something becomes, the more financial value it accrues, the less value it holds for them spiritually.

We see this pattern all of the time, moving in infinite cycles. Things, ideas, fashions, and indeed people frequently originate from the streets, generating ideas that form a small group or subculture.

Other people catch on. They like it. The thing, idea, fashion, or indeed person becomes cool, by which point it’s inevitable that it will be plucked, repackaged by the corporate machine, and sold back to the public at large. Because cool things sell, just like sex.

Once this has happened there is really only one outcome. First, the thing, idea, fashion, or indeed person will be rejected by the originating subculture for being too commercial. Then slowly but surely, the money machine will systematically extract and sell every last drop of cool until the idea, thing, fashion, or indeed person is rejected by everyone for not being cool enough. Even little old ladies.

Fully underground subcultures are still a part of the machine, albeit the seed which begets food for the money machine to consume and excrete.

In 2007, artist Damian Hirst unveiled the most expensive piece of art in modern history: a diamond encrusted skull, valued at £50,000,000. He said of the piece: “I wouldn’t mind if that happened to my head when I died.” Deep and moving sentiments indeed.

My point is: if a diamond encrusted skull which has no discernible meaning or function – except to stimulate the salivary glands of status crazed fat cats – is worthy of that kind of fortune, why shouldn’t street artists be deserving of an income from their work?

If you dedicate your life to painting works of art in public places, you kiss goodbye to them the second you walk away. They could be painted over by a council worker or by a disrespecting graffiti artist.

Worse than that, the product of your blood, sweat and tears could be copied and sold online, plastered across a selection of tee shirts, canvasses, mugs and corporate desktop gadgets. Heck! You can get yourself down to IKEA right now and buy your very own Banksy. Not because of the political message of course, but because it looks cool and matches your scatter cushions.

Big business can copy and sell your images to their hearts’ content because you can’t copyright what you don’t own, and you don’t own the street. In fact, irony is at play right here on this page, for the only image credit I’m legally obliged to give is for the image below which I copied from an online shop, who sell products featuring borrowed Banksy art.

It’s a tragic  paradox. You have this thing, this art form, which is meant to be free for all – there to brighten up the grey parts of the city and the jaded parts of our minds. It is a beautiful gift, intended to raise man’s consciousness by stimulating debate, both internal and external.

The message in Banksy’s work is explicit: consumerism is bad, and it’s destroying us. Yet it has in it’s self become something to be consumed. To be chewed up and spat out by popular culture.

As I wander around Dismaland, it is clear to me that Banksy’s original intention is unwavering. He has a way of enlightening us through entertainment. Using humour to stimulate humility. Coercing consciousness through comedy. It’s also plain to see that the paltry £4 entry fee is merely to cover costs.

According to the Pest Control Office, none of the Banksy merchandise you can buy – including actual paintings – are sanctioned by him, but you know what? Even if Banksy is super-rich, it’s not corrupted his spirit. That much is evident in the amazing work he continues to share with us.

I hope he is minted. I for one think he’s earnt it.

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4 thoughts on “Banksy: Street Art Hero, or Sell Out?

  1. Nice post. I’m not going to get to see this and have been hearing very divergent opinions. Must be talking about Banksy hey!! Love your comparison to Marmite – love/ hate. I wonder what the % are actually? And last but not least I love this line “As I wonder around Dismaland” if this is a typo never ‘fess up’. It’s exactly what I would do at a Banksy exhibition. Enjoyed the read & a follow from me. Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, sadly it’s a typo – I’m not that clever! Thanks for your feedback and the follow. I hope you wonder at Dismaland as much as I did. The short film about creativity is especially poignant if you get the chance to see it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Alas no. I won’t get to this. I’m based in Melbourne. Have you seen the Banksy does NYC film? I missed the run at the cinemas here. Doh. If you like street art more generally than just Banksy I’ve just done a post on some of Melbourne’s best – but now lost – street art. There’s some great artists here 🙂

        Like

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