On the morning of October 20th, the National Report published an article titled “Graffiti Artist Banksy Arrested in London; Identity Revealed.” After processing the title, I was actually surprised to feel myself stop breathing momentarily. Banksy, the elusive British graffiti artist, director, and political activist had been caught. Well, allegedly caught. After reading through the National Report’s article and then a series of follow-up articles, the general consensus seemed to be that the National Report had falsified both its sources and general facts. Later that afternoon, the article was finally confirmed as a hoax. Another story successfully butchered by an American news source. Banksy was safe for another day and I felt the tightening in my chest lessen slightly, although I was still relatively unsettled.
Regardless of whether the artistic medium is literary, auditory, or visual, it seems that if there is one thing people absolutely detest, it’s feeling stupid or excluded. Unfortunately, modern art and the modern art world have gained and supported a reputation that has somehow managed to accomplish both, perpetuating the idea that the art world is only reserved for those who possess equal amounts of snobbery and elitism. Furthermore, there has been a recent trend in articles about how we should view art, providing evidence for the claim that art is not truly accessible by the masses, but rather reserved solely for the privileged and educated few. But this is only one half of the art world. The other half is arguably spearheaded by men and women like Banksy. While Banksy’s artistic technique is certainly worth examining on its own, his fame is ultimately the result of his mastery of blurring the line that separates the rigidly structured art world and the common man. Banksy’s art is for and accessible by everyone; he literally paints on the wall that divides these groups, making him a modern-day Robin Hood for the art community.
Although I was not introduced to Banksy until 2011 when I saw the documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” Banksy had been a household name since the late 90s. Banksy’s graffiti started to gain traction in Bristol, England in 1993, and by 2001 his now-iconic spray-painted images were visible in numerous English cities. But he was impossible to contact for a comment, he made no public appearances, refused all in-person interviews, and somehow evaded all law enforcement. In one way, Banksy was merely a street artist. But his anonymity soon began to parallel what Marcel Duchamp did in the early 20th century with Fountain; that is, his art asked us if an image is still art when the artist’s identity is removed. In a broader sense, Banksy represents a challenge against the members of the art world who have told us what is “good” art and what is not. He is outside the constructed art world and he has achieved notable international recognition. He is as much a part of the contemporary art movement as he is a challenge against it. Because of this, he has since received a fair amount of backlash from the art community, but his name and artwork are out there nevertheless.
So Banksy’s anonymity is nothing new. For years now the public has speculated about the identity of Banksy and numerous articles have been published over the years claiming to know his identity. What did shock me then about the National Report’s article was not the headline that Banksy had been arrested. (After all, Banksy is painting on city property and it is not impossible that he will make a mistake and face legal prosecution one day.) Rather, I was shocked that his identity had supposedly been revealed to the public with such gratified nonchalance. It was almost as if the article’s title was “Well Folks, We Finally Got Him. You Can All Rest Easy Now.” My reaction transitioned from shock to fury. How could the police supposedly unmask this great artist? Moreover, I started to wonder why it was that an artist’s personal identity mattered so much when it came to his or her art. Why is there such a sense of urgency to know everything about an artist? Why can’t we just let our obsession to know everything go?
When we demand to know absolutely everything about an artist, we begin to enter the dangerous territory of biographical fallacy. I understand the obsession in wanting to know absolutely everything about the artists we admire: We want to know the man (or woman) behind the mask so we can praise him, love him, and understand his art. But what is dangerous is that we begin to focus so much on who created the art versus what the art is that we take away the very meaning of the piece itself. While knowing Banksy’s biography would answer the personal questions we have about him, it would destroy the very image that he has been building for decades. Some people see Banksy as a pioneer; the Zorro of the modern art world. Others, such as the English Police and artistic elite, see him as a vandalistic hoodlum. But isn’t this blurry and indiscernible dichotomy the point? Banksy’s anonymity allows him to be everything to everyone all at once. Moreover, the fact that we know hardly anything about him allows us to look at his art for what it is, rather than attribute his works to his own life and image. Banksy has replaced his own biography with pictures. In a phrase, his identity is his art alone. Banksy refuses to play by the rules and it seems ridiculous for us to try to capture the artist who has done everything to evade our scrupulous eyes. I say enough is enough.
For years law enforcement and news sources alike have oscillated between praising Banksy the Artist and condemning Banksy the Criminal. But Banksy’s identity and his artistic medium are not the true problems here. Rather, it is our persistent attempts to reveal, dissect, and analyze Banksy’s identity and our sense of urgency to understand absolutely everything in the artist’s world that’s the problem. Banksy’s art neither harms nor offends anyone; indeed, much of his art is political in tone, but it is never aesthetically displeasing or offensive. What is ultimately at stake here is not Banksy’s identity, but our own. While this can be unsettling, Banksy’s art brings us back to an interpretative process and understanding of art that is rooted in our state of mind. In other words, his art is free from the chains of artistic biography and critical analyses that impact our interpretation of works of art. If our artistic process is then free to roam, why not let Banksy roam freely among the world as well?
Images courtesy of http://www.banksy.co.uk/out.asp