“A sphinx in search of a riddle.”
~ Truman Capote, on Andy Warhol
About a month ago, following a rather dissatisfying evening, I found myself scurrying to the subway. I was crossing Astor Place in downtown Manhattan when I came across a strange scene. It was about midnight, and parked by the curb on a side street was a rental truck. I was approaching the front of the truck but I could see a small knot of people behind it, and they all seemed rather excited by what was going on. Like any good New Yorker, I'd thought I'd lucked into the chance to buy some nice speakers, 3000-count sheets or some other, umm, severely discounted merchandise. Wallet in hand, I came round the truck and had a gander, and realized I couldn't have been more wrong.
For the interior of the truck had been transformed into a jungle diorama. There were plants and flowers, which looked real, and stony cliffs, which did not. But there was a small waterfall that plashed gently into a pool, and recorded birdsong playing from hidden speakers, as well as the somewhat unnerving sight of insects and butterflies buzzing about the interior. Far in the background were painted a bridge, a sun, a mountain, and a rainbow.
As delighted as I was (because serendipity insists that such a discovery is always partly thanks to me), I still didn't really know what was up. Next to me was an Italian gentleman with an enormous camera, who had just about wet himself with excitement. “It's him! It's him!” he said, giggling like a schoolgirl. “Who?” “Banksy! We've been chasing after this all day.” I don't really know what it means to chase after street art but, once Banksy's name had been floated, I realized that I'd stumbled across one of several dozen Easter eggs the reclusive artist had begun laying all over the city for the month of October.
This “residency,” in Banksy's own words, is sparely documented on a website thrown up for the occasion, but the site doesn't reflect the kerfuffle caused by those who have come into contact with the works or their interlocutors. Without attempting to define the quality that makes art great, I will humbly suggest that, for the present discussion, it may be that it becomes a mirror in which society has no choice but to view itself. I realize how horrifically unoriginal this is. As a defense, consider that Banksy's anonymity makes this not just inevitable, but desirable. (Banksy's anonymity has led to understandably ripe amounts of speculation – although to say that Damien Hirst is responsible for Banksy is like saying Edward de Vere wrote everything attributed to that other artful dodger, William Shakespeare. Banksy may or may not be one person, but for him to turn out to be Damien Hirst would prove that we are living in a very cruel universe, indeed.)
Such a brutally enforced anonymity means we have already played into his hands. Banksy's work neither asks for permission or forgiveness, and the intrinsically ephemeral nature of street art generates a scarcity economy par excellence. This virtuous circle has continued its widening gyre, as the value of his works now far outstrips those of his contemporaries on the international art market. In turn, this gives Banksy a larger megaphone with which to sound his trickster yawp. In a sense, Banksy is a prime beneficiary of his countryman's dictum, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
So when everyone is talking about it, there's a good chance that what's really at stake is not Banksy's art, which at its best has the conceptual bite of an above-average New Yorker cartoon, and at its worst is just dead on arrival (two examples from the recent stint in New York include a kludgy reference to the Twin Towers, and balloon-letter throw-up of his name made from – wait for it – balloons). Nor is there anything very compelling in the yawning of the critics, as exemplified by Jerry Saltz, or the outrage of NYC's teeming graffiti underground, who are understandably upset at the idea of a British Invasion of their turf. Of far greater interest is what happens to the art once it has been put out there – that is, when the city's collective, chaotic decision-making apparatus swings into full force. To wit and in no particular order:
October 10th: Banksy's stencil, implying a beaver's responsibility for a parking sign broken off at its base, is co-opted by locals who promptly begin charging hipster Banksystas for the privilege of ogling said beaver.
Located in East New York, there is an entertaining video clearly demonstrating exactly whose neighborhood you're in. New York may not longer be the hotbed of quick-buck capitalism – that honor surely goes to Lagos, Mumbai, Mexico City and probably a half-dozen other global cities – but these guys could certainly smell an easy dollar. Banksy might not much care either, but he is switched on enough to know that people fight over his art. Putting one-of-a-kind pieces in public places is, in fact, an excellent way to egg on any conflict. Furthermore, put it in a hardscrabble East New York neighborhood and the resentment of certain locals towards white graffiti tourism is bound to bring results.
It's important to contrast this against another recent intervention. As I've already noted, in the case of Thomas Hirschhorn's Gramsci Monument, hipster art tourism brought people to a South Bronx public housing project – people who would otherwise never venture anywhere near a place such as Forrest Houses. The difference is that Hirschhorn's installation was full of not just contradictions but also compassion and dignity. Banksy is clear about harboring no such interests. In fact, most of his pieces have already been removed: the Sphinx in the picture at the top of this article was trucked away the very same day, although not after nearly causing a fistfight or two. Those pieces not removed wholesale have been painted over by irritated owners, or brutally defaced by local taggers and writers. Only a few lucky ones have been ‘protected' behind Plexiglas.
October 13th: Banksy sets up a stand off Central Park selling authentic stenciled canvases for $60 a pop. The day's take: 8 sales for a total of $420. Note that the market value of these is estimated at about $20,000 each. Bonus points to the woman who haggled the vendor down 50% for two of the pieces.
This was rather sly of Banksy. On the one hand, we can lament how greatness is always under our noses, but it's the social signaling that really calls the shots. This is perhaps better known as the Joshua Bell school of behavioral psychology, where you are confident in your belief that you would have recognized him playing violin in the DC Metro. Recall the egotism that I implied always exists in serendipity. And yet how many thousand people walked by that stand on Central Park? As for me, I excuse myself because I'm rarely on the east side.
On the other hand, we could make a counter-argument around fakes. How could anyone know this was in fact real? This being New York, fakes are sold everywhere, and Banksy is certainly prone to being faked, as it's not hard to fob a stencil. It's really only the signature that counts – or rather being told that that is, in fact, the real signature. And those reassuring us of this provenance are the gallerists, the dealers, the appraisers and insurers and everyone who is in on the take in the art world. Banksy seems to be having a laugh at everyone's expense, actually, and the tourists, that most disposable of all New York street personae, come off not as the savviest, nor redeemed by the simplicity of their faith, but just the luckiest. Let's hope that the three who purchased the canvases all watch the news.
October 29th: A mediocre landscape painting is purchased from a Housing Works charity shop, the long-time AIDS advocacy organization. It is altered and then re-donated to Housing Works. Inserted into the landscape is a Nazi SS officer seated on a bench, admiring the view right along with us.
Jerry Saltz is right to call this “one of the oldest tricks in the modernist book.” Recent examples include Star Wars meets Thomas Kinkade and monsters inserted in, yes, thrift store paintings. But to stop there misses the point dramatically. The original painting is decidedly Bob Ross and the intervention is not much better. The title – “The Banality of the Banality of Evil” – does not exactly inspire flights of admiring critical prose. What matters here is the context. On the one hand, the joke seemed to be on Housing Works, since they wound up prominently displaying it in their shop window. But as soon as the word got out, the organization put the hot ticket on its online auction site, and as you can see from the auction page, the bidding closed at $615,000 (have a closer look at the page – you know it's serious when Mr. Bob Dobalina pulls out at $155,000). This would have been one of the largest auction windfalls in Housing Works history, and it's pretty improbable that Banksy didn't know what he was getting up to.
The unifying feature in all of this is the commodification of art and, by implication, all of society. Once they'd figured it out, everyone wanted in. Even Stephen Colbert found himself in a supplicatory mood, although he wound up getting a Hanksy and not a Banksy. But seriously: Banksy, in his feigned show of anonymity and supreme indifference, asks us a rather important question. What kind of a city do we want to live in? The smash-and-grab mentality that Banksy's drive-by New York appearance has left us on tenuous ground. Even the Housing Works auction, a seemingly high note of lèse-majesté with which Banksy could have triumphantly completed his residency, descended into a bit of chaos, as it turned out that the winning bidder didn't have the money everyone assumed he did.
Aside from strewing ephemeral art crumbs around the five boroughs for us to fight over, I'm not sure what the final point of the exercise was. Banksy himself, in an interview with the Village Voice, said there wasn't any:
“There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There's no gallery show or book or film. It's pointless. Which hopefully means something.”
Ok, fine. But as the recent title sequence he did for The Simpsons indicates, it's clear where Banksy's sympathies lie. It's a good old-fashioned street rebellion against authority, whether that authority is corporate or governmental. So the sign-off to his last piece really rankled with me: “Thanks for your patience. It's been fun. Save 5pointz. Bye.” Forget the rest of the city – if there is anything that Banksy should be interested in engaging, it's the imminent demolition of 5Pointz, one of the greatest graffiti monuments not only in New York, but in the entire world. Hey guv, thanks for the laughs, but care to throw out a few rat stencils to help defray legal costs?
In any event, after I'd gotten my fill of the Banksy deposited off Astor Place that night, I wondered what would happen to the truck. Obviously, there hadn't been anyone in the cab at the time. I secretly hoped that the truck would just stay there, abandoned, until the generator expired and the city, exasperated, had to cart the truck off to whatever pound is such vehicles' destiny. We could have gotten a better nugget out of Mayor Bloomberg than some anodyne “it may be art, but it should not be permitted” (although one only pines for what Giuliani's reaction would have been, back in the good old days). Making a mess and forcing the authorities to clean up after him – now that would have been a proper Banksy.