How to Talk About Art: Banksy’s 3 Ps (#H2TAA)

Children love the robot vandal in Coney Island (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Children love the robot vandal in Coney Island (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Editor’s note: Hyperallergic is hosting a Google+ Hangout today, Monday, November 4, at 1pm EST with guests Luna Park, Lois Stavsky, RJ Rushmore, and Rafael Schacter. Please join us at: https://plus.google.com/+hyperallergic to discuss Banksy’s monthlong residency.

The best way to begin talking about Banksy, right now, following his October New York Residency, would be to NOT talk about Banksy. Not just because of the press overload, but because there’s something big that the media has been ignoring … and that’s context.

Street art is, more than any other type of art, about context. It is made in situ; it is about neighborhoods and cities. The artists participate in a close-knit community that shares and builds on memes. They play like Picasso and Braques, making a similar game out of iconography – only with more levity and equal puffery!

So why are we talking so much about Banksy and ignoring his context? Hint: because the art snobs keep thinking in the white-walled box that they’ve kept their brains frozen in since the 1930s. They forget about context when it’s not a dot on a timeline or written in the text books. Btw, it’s also fashionable to hate things that appeal to a larger public unless it is about cashing in, because that’s just how the art world is.

Well then, time for new instructions!

Context = PPP (Place, Politics, Populism)

If you’re going to talk about street art you can start with a formula, newly minted here; we’ll call it the three p’s: place, politics, and populism (the latter being, actually, just a subset of politics — but so all-important that it’s crucial to break it out!).

There's something about Banksy that tells people to "bring their kids along" and capture the moment.
There’s something about Banksy that tells people to “bring their kids along” and capture the moment.

Place: Say “Site-specific”

Whenever you can, say “site specific,” because it makes the art sound really thoughtful and relevant. Art dealers and fair directors LOVE to brag about site-specific works! And when they do, the art world media will dutifully set fingers to keys, making sure everybody knows that so-and-so made blah-blah for who’sitz site/show/booth/party, specifically — as if that mattered at all when the art does not reflect anything specific at all about the site — except bragging rights.

Yet when it comes to street art, they neglect the ultimate opportunity to gas on about true and valid site specificity: art made by dudes (mostly) in hoodies dangling precariously from very specific rooftops! They work around your neighborhood’s street lights, and the happenstance of shop owners with baseball bats or dogs, or both.

A good street artist will mold and fit images to each wall, its crevices and plant life, and Siamese drain pipes.

These artists accommodate their work to a building’s roof access and surveillance cameras.

In proper context, street art is about who hates who (or what), who notices what, who has time on their hands, and how the hell they feel about it. Street art is a window into your neighbor’s neighbor’s neighbor’s backyard.

Banksy & Place

Banksy 2005, West Bank barrier in Israel.
Banksy 2005, West Bank barrier in Israel. (photo from Wikipedia)

Banksy is a breakout street artist because he’s so very good at place. He uses it better than the rest, not just locating a wall to bullhorn upon, he finds a location that speaks or an address that resonates and he places a message on it that leverages the zeitgeist.

Often, what he creates is as thoughtful and relevant as we could wish for, if only we keep in mind that PLACE is part of the work itself. And that. My friends. Is. Very. Site. Specific.

This site contains messages blocked by handstands.
This site contains messages blocked by handstands.


It’s no use leveraging polite aesthetic terms to speak about art any more: beauty is a Kardashian, intellect takes its lessons from YouTube, and formalism just bores the fuck out of most of us.

We’re five again. We have no attention spans, but we’re quick; we have no taste, but lord knows we’re hungry.

Faux revolutionaries love Banksy too!
Faux revolutionaries love Banksy too!

In the face of our generational malaise, art pundits have resorted to speaking about the even the dullest art in the most hyperbolic terms possible. We’re talking “subversion” and “interventions,” “interrogations,” and “bombing” all to refer to film projects, staring contests, or a cozy on a parking meter.

The key is to make it sound like your artist sneaks about in the dark and lobs Molotov cocktails into dark warehouses, then scurries into the night over the rooftops…um. Sort of like a street artist (sans the Molotov cocktails).

BANKSYPOST-320The fact is, when you’re addressing street art, you have, finally, the REAL THING! Instant incendiary political activism!

Banksy isn’t creating his images while safely ensconsed in an underheated studio in Bushwick. He’s dodging police and cameras. He’s hiring insurgents to polish Ronald McDonald’s giant-ass shoes!

You want subversion? No one subverts like Banksy. No one does street interventions like Banksy. And no one at all deconstructs like Banksy. Though you might also add that he does everything in a media savvy way that allows it to snake through social media like no other artist can. So, it is the most subversive? Hmmm … well, it is certainly the most widely circulated example of subversion.


Kids loooooovve Banksy.
Kids loooooovve Banksy.

Face it, your average artist is not radical so much as anti-bad thing and pro-good thing. Anti-corporate, anti-government, anti-elite, anti-consumerism … pro-earth, pro-free speech, pro-choice, pro-labor, pro-community — pro-little person.

This is populism in a nutshell. Populism agrees with you. It isn’t picking any fights. It’s not deep, not a thesis. It’s just a man on the street view of the imbalance of power and resulting injustice.

Now your street artist, she’s populist to the nth degree, and not so much ironic as sarcastic, and not so much confrontational as sly, and, most happily, not so much conceptual as purely visual.

Pets love Banksy, too.
Pets love Banksy, too.

Banksy is a street artist. He’s not going to make drop dead conceptual work that kicks us in the groin and pops the wind out of us. He’s going to repeat what you already think. He’s going to make fun of what you already laugh at. He’s going to wink and nudge and jostle.

And, honestly? He’s going to make works so obvious that everyone but art-critic-who-finally-noticed-street-art-after-decades Jerry Saltz will understand them.

Because, face it, we usually don’t demand much more from street art than that it should amuse us while we walk wearily home from work or turn out of bed in our sweats to go fetch some creamer at the corner.

Banksy hits that sweet spot of recognition + a little something extra. Here, it's a joke about co-dependancy. Get it?
Banksy hits that sweet spot of recognition + a little something extra. Here, it’s a joke about co-dependancy. Get it?

Banksy Out of Context

Think about this: anonymous street artist works for roughly two decades, builds a blue chip name and brand, remains anonymous, and still works the STREETS.

He may have stood out originally for his creativity, his style, and his skill in creating a magic PR machine, but he also stands out for his genuine marriage to his medium: the street itself.

Picking him out has also caused the snootiest of us to make demands for “depth” which misunderstand the nature of graffiti and street art (not the same thing, but we’ll let that go for the moment): how it’s made on the fly; how it’s about what we already believe; how it speaks to those who live with it.

Why not all get into the photo? More context!
Why not all get into the photo? More context!
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