Misattributing a quote from Mikhail Bakunin to Picasso with the words “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge”, the elusive artist pulled an amazing prank which, ironically, cements his own celebrity status and makes him part of the establishment he criticizes.
Just last Friday, the anonymous British artist known as Banksy pulled what has been called “the greatest art prank in history”. When he framed one of his works years ago, he secretly installed a shredder on the frame, just in case it ever went up for auction. When it eventually did, Banksy somehow activated the system as soon as the print was sold for $1.4 million (£1.04m) and the Sotheby's room watched in awe as it was slowly cut to strips. Banksy is otherwise famous for elusively painting subversive street art that constantly mocks established institutions and systems, including the government, capitalism, and the art industry. He has also made art installations to question several social behaviors.
There is much that goes right with the anonymous artist’s recent viral prank. He partially damaged his own work in an attempt to criticize contemporary consumerism and “artistic commodification”; which generated worldwide discussion about the way we value and trade art and inclined many to write about it —including us. That’s a good thing for the advancement of artistic debate in today’s culture of massive media and viral trends. But where does this leave Banksy himself? Unfortunately, although to some extent he achieved what he likely intended, the success of his works entails the downfall of their very essence: their subversive nature.
Banksy’s art aims to undermine the social structures which gave rise to it. Yet, like all institutionalized art, his works are ultimately re-coded and repurposed to function within the artistic and cultural establishment. The establishment feeds on them and they feed on the establishment. The artistic institution has a marked tendency for appropriation, and it’s very proficient at absorbing successful pieces into its machinery, fully integrating them to its workings, and profiting from them. Just think most other attempts to criticize traditional art forms, or to generate polemic and provocation.
It happened to Duchamp’s The Fountain (a.k.a. Duchamp’s Urinal), when it established modern and later contemporary tendencies of transgression. It happened to Che Guevara’s image being used as best-selling merchandise, effectively undermining the communist spirit of the Argentinian revolutionary. It happened to the whole postmodern set-up that rose in Europe against rational thought, since it was itself fully integrated as one of the unreflective dogmas of a new generation (defeating the critical purpose of the original current).
It happens especially in the world of celebrated music art. Contemporary pop music gives many examples, one of which is Lady Gaga. Often labeled as a “subversive” artist, Lady Gaga is nothing if not part of the celebrity canon of American music. As controversial as she might be, she is a perfect fit for an establishment that was built on selling controversy in the first place. There’s nothing subversive in profiting from subversion. And Banksy, having reached viral and celebrity status already, now falls under this category.
His stunt could ultimately serve as little more than entertainment for the idle and a resource for those who seek to capitalize on disruptive art. By attempting to undermine their cultural establishment, Banksy’s works end up creating the conditions that allow the establishment to undermine them instead. We are not witnessing the success of subversive art; we are witnessing its utter failure (and the sad reality that the powers of social structure seem yet beyond the reach of individual transgression).
Whatever once lied on the fringes of the art world, as soon as it makes enough noise, it gets reabsorbed and repurposed by cultural institutions to work against its original goal. Successful subversion always leads to its ultimate failure. That’s the paradox of subversive art. No matter how much a piece of art manages to shift social paradigms, it always ends up providing the new standard against which it would’ve otherwise stood. If the subversive core in some forms of art relies on their never becoming well-established, then, as soon as they become sufficiently influential, they fail in this very goal.
Banksy is known to direct criticism not only at the institution that profits from the commodification of art; but at the consumer and the general public also, to the extent that they are collaborators. The biggest irony of all is that Banksy is standing right beside them as guilty party; as part of the very machinery he wanted to compromise. He’s a celebrity, his name generates profit, and his stunt didn’t effectively prevent the trading of art. It simply gave it a new twist, a funny story, and in the end seemed to invigorate artistic commodification.
Indeed, while Banksy’s figure and power seemingly depends on remaining outside the establishment, he cannot but become complicit in the perpetuation of the crimes he so vehemently decries. Anonymity alone is certainly not enough to prevent this; and in the story of the now-viral artist perhaps the most tragic turn is precisely that he cannot seem to escape this fate. More and more, as much as he wanted to make us question society, he is becoming a perpetrator. His name has become a brand, just like Duchamp or Che Guevara before him.
What could Banksy do? Given his current predicament, the most straightforward path to congruence is to disappear. If living in relative anonymity ever allowed for a golden opportunity, it would be to give up on the name now that it has become a brand and start over. If “Banksy” continues to exist, it would now only serve to undermine the artist’s original purpose even further. If “Banksy” continues to exist, his “enemies” —the targets of his subversion— win all too easily.
Before simply fading away as an artist, however, Banksy would need to ensure that his name becomes worthless. Not by partially destroying a painting —which only serves to increase its value— but by actually destroying the brand. Make it so common that it becomes irrelevant. Produce paintings massively and see the value disappear. To quote Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
At the moment, Banksy’s work is what he deplored: a manifestation of consumerism liable for absurd capitalization. Its most subversive possible action now would be to remove all opportunities for capitalizing on it. That would be an authentic display of artistic transgression.
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