He’s not the most visually arresting of the so-called “street-artists”. He’s definitely not the most conceptually astute. He’s not the most innovative or emotive, nor the most site-specific or materially prolific. In truth, he’s not even the sharpest political commentator within the movement, nor the character most wanted by the police.
What Banksy is, however, is by far the most famous of all street-artists and, what’s more, undeniably its most media savvy. With an irrepressible ability to capture the zeitgeist, an acute understanding of theatre and spectacle, Banksy has become the figure whose work receives the most ‘likes’, the most re-tweets, that receives the most column inches and by far the most amount of visual documentation. He is the artist, of all those who work independently within the public sphere, who knows just how to entertain and enthrall, how to produce works with an all-embracing public appeal. Neither possessing the cryptic “sophistication” of the high-art world nor the equally cryptic “grit” of art brut, Banksy has instead located himself in a quite self-consciously determined centre-ground, a position from which he is able to subject all sides of the art spectrum to ridicule and critique. From here he can satirize the strangely equivalent status of both graffiti and contemporary art, he can critique the comparable regulations and formalities they both possess. He can use a man-of-the-people modesty and a frank anti-intellectualism to deride all fakery and conceit, to subject all dogmas to dismissal and contempt.
Yet whilst this defiantly anti(art)establishment work has brought him many admirers (including myself), Banksy has also explored many issues from outside of the art-world – from global warfare to animal welfare, from child labour to political failure – through an equivalently catch-all, anti-elitist style. He has used his skill in creating very candid visual statements (through both a formal and narrative simplicity) so as to provoke an immediate identification and empathy from his viewers. And this, for me, is where the quandary lies. Whilst Banksy’s political works may at first seem so subversive, their success emerges from their firmly placed presence in the centre, from their populist political standpoints as much as their populist visual appeal. Set with the ‘people’ and against the ‘elites’, they aim to take power back but instead, like their party political counterparts, serve to further stymie true progress. They refuse to allow for complexity or paradox, to acknowledge the instability and open-endedness so present within our contemporary world. And rather than making us think, pushing us into active analysis rather than passive acceptance, what Banksy’s political works can be understood to promote are simply the superficial sentiments we all want to hear, the easy answers which we so readily rely on. What they provide us with is the gratifying reinforcement of ‘our’ already present ideals, the warm, fuzzy feeling of self-affirmation.
Better Out Than In, Banksy’s recently completed one month “residency” in New York, illustrates this duality perfectly: Whilst the works of self and institutional critique do succeed in challenging the authority present both graffiti and high-art (as well as pointing out many of the hypocrisies they are subject to), the more overtly political works present us with a more awkward story. The Lower East Side piece from October 9th is one such case in point: Set within a graffiti covered lot, we are shown two stencil covered vehicles, one depicting a set of goggle wearing (possibly computerized) horses, the other a group of skyward looking, fearful and cross-hair lined humans (depicted in a classical sculptural style). Set aside three cylindrical barrels, one conspicuously marked “oil”, and with an oil-like material also copiously covering the area, we are already being pushed toward the closed meaning of the piece before we listen to the accompanying audio-guide; with this, an audio extract taken directly from the WikiLeaks sourced video “Collateral Murder”, Banksy unequivocally points us towards the singular meaning of his work. It is a piece espousing a direct message of opposition to armed conflict, a message decrying the wars for oil which the US has become embroiled within. Likewise take Banksy’s travelling Ronald McDonald sculpture from October 16th. Here we are presented with a life-size sculpture of the company’s mascot complete with huge, clown-sized shoes, shoes being continually polished by an adjacent shoe-shine boy (here played by a living and breathing actor). The audio guide again: “The result is a critique of the heavy labor required to sustain the polished image of a mega corporation. Is Ronald’s statue as posed indicative of how corporations have become the historical figures of our era? Does this hero have feet of clay and a massively large footprint to boot”? Leaving no room for divergent interpretations, Banksy’s McDonald sculpture has one meaning and one meaning only. It takes its target and makes its contention clear, exposing the corporate monolith as an evil taskmaster rather than affable friend.
Unlike Banksy’s more open-ended examinations of the art-world (as seen in particular in Blocked Messages and Ghetto 4 Life), these overtly political works present us with a radically reduced possibility for interpretation. And my fear, my anxiety, comes from the all too agreeable, populist narratives they promote, the comfortable acquiescence they seek. Who could truly disagree with the facts they present? Who could say that war is not bad, exploitation not evil? Yet rather than requiring the viewer to think for themselves, the simple sentiments they provide merely pacify us through the reassuring refortification of our ideals. They do not force us to act, they compel us to agree. They do not force us into doing, they consign us to inertia. Of course, I am not suggesting that the intentions from which these works emerge should themselves be condemned. The basic ethical principles they declare – those of anti-war and anti-exploitation – can only be lauded, are only ever honorable. Yet they do not lead us to protest against McDonalds poor working conditions and poor wages: They make us smile and nod our head in agreement (and then go grab a Big Mac). They do not impel us to seek a move away from the present political system: They bring a tear to our eye and a unanimous shake of the head (and tacit permission to continue as is). They shore up our sense of right or wrong without ever changing the world around us, charming us, comforting us without forcing us to ponder the more uncomfortable truths.
Certainly, one can still use popular culture to address these crucial political issues. The Yes Men and PERP’s recent satirical ‘Three Strikes You’re In!” campaign showed how one can incisively yet comically explore these critical subjects, cleverly aligning the targeting of low-income communities of color in the NYPD’s stop and frisk campaign with McDonalds targeting of the health and well-being of this same community. But Banksy’s work simply fails to get past stock formulas and stale truisms, a failure that is an immediate danger, that actually contains rather than initiates change. The increased public participation so prevalent within Better Out Than In, the evolution of Banksy’s anti-elitist desires into a state where his viewers seem to consummate his works through their presence (as seen most clearly in his ‘Balloon Girl’ image, the female character in the original work here being fulfilled by his devotees), can itself be seen to show how this capacity for containment functions. Unlike the critical engagement with an active public that occurs in the socially motivated art of figures such as Thomas Hirschhorn, in the ‘enabling’ graffiti projects formed by Akim Nguyen or the audience produced art instituted by Eltono, the participatory style of Better Our Than In is participation only in its weakest sense. It is the viewer as the passive object of the artwork rather than its active subject, the viewer compliantly completing rather than dynamically participating in the works. Participation here is not about action or change, but about the gratifying feeling of unanimity and belonging with our fellow citizens, the delight in our joint beliefs which mean that we need not act, need not think further. It is a direct example of what Milan Kundera famously called ‘the second tear’, the tear we shed not merely from our being moved (this being the first tear), but from the recognition, the self-satisfaction of being moved, from the shared bond of the sentimental and banal.
Of course, with all this critique, I could be charged for missing the bigger picture. Banksy’s work does not all take the political edge which I am so concerned with. It does not all carry the dangerous potentiality of the kitsch. His efforts to make people re-assess their environment through Better Out Than In, his ability to reinvigorate the public imagination with art on the street can only be given the upmost respect. His sheer work ethic, the ability to produce a new work almost everyday for a whole month is something that all graffiti artists (and all artists period) should be shamed by. He has done it and you have not, whether you like the work or not. Yet for me, the feeling still lingers. Whilst much of Banksy’s may just elicit a light-hearted chuckle, his political work – which crucially I feel has come to implicitly encompass his oeuvre as a whole – still leaves me with this sense of unease (for all the wrong reasons). It is not about the transformation of thought. It is not about the rejection or deconstruction of our contemporary culture. It is simply about the pleasant validation of the status quo, the pleasant validation of what we all already know: War is bad. Politicians lie. Supermarkets suck.
Rafael Schacter is honorary research fellow at the Department of Anthropology at University College, London. He is the author of The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, recently published by Yale University Press.
 Brad Downey (http://www.braddowney.com/)would surely take this award.
 BNE BNE BNE (http://bne.org/).
 I’d suggest Escif (http://www.streetagainst.com/) for this position.
 This dubious honor going to Oleg Vorotnikov, the founder of the Russian Voina group (http://en.free-voina.org/) who is currently, and unbelievably, on Interpol’s most wanted list.
 See his recent “Gramsci Monument” in the South Bronx, 2013 http://www.gramsci-monument.com/.
 Such as in “Mała 4” in Warsaw 2012 http://www.eltono.com/en/projects/mala-4/ or “Branco de España” in A Coruña, 2010 http://www.eltono.com/en/projects/branco-de-espana/.