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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.

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. (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.

Politics

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!

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).

The 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.

Populism

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.

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 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!

The Latest

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This week, a Frank Stella is installed as a public artwork in NYC, the women behind some iconic buildings, looting Cambodia, fighting anti-boycott laws, and more.

Cat Weaver

Independent curator, Cat Weaver is the Brooklyn-based writer and editor of The Art Machine, a blog that covers the art market in all of its gossipy glory....

20 replies on “How to Talk About Art: Banksy’s 3 Ps (#H2TAA)”

  1. wow… what an awful article. Badly written and full of snobbery. It’s important to be wary about elitism but it’s equally important to be informed about art history before using words like “site specificity”. There is nothing in this article I find to be a refreshing thought or a new approach. Art is NEVER simple. You can make it out to be entertaining, aesthetic or blunt but the essence of artistic works is to be complex. You can uncover the different layers from only being beautiful to look at to challenging your world views or your ways of thinking. Cat Weaver only got to layer 3, which is “I am gonna make broad assumptions about this work and art in general without having the knowledge to back it up.” Weak.

      1. It kind of differs from the rest of the series, don’t you think? I liked the idea and enjoyed the first few episodes because they were funny, followed a kind of pattern and actually gave a lot of insight into the artists works and the theoretical background. This: not so much.

        1. They were meant to be tongue in cheek in the same way. I think it’s interesting you see a big difference. It’s always good to hear people’s perceptions. Thanks for the feedback/

      2. oh please you’ve been loving Banksy so seriously for an entire month you do not get to claim satire.

        1. Hey Jeri, Your comments are getting more and more abrasive and aren’t contributing to the conversation. You are contributing to a negative atmosphere in the commenting section, and we’re not interested in fostering that kind of environment.

        2. Jeri: I think one can use satire to praise or to skewer. AND one can praise and skewer simultaneously. If you like art, then you have to learn to see the hilarity in polemics. Art criticism is (just) discourse. Hyperallergic knows how to have fun with it!

          1. I wrote an amusing comment here last night but your editor doesn’t think it contributes to the conversation, so you’ll just have to take my word for it -it was a fun comment. I may have used a dirty word. Hrag says I’m being abrasive. Anyway, there is a difference between satire and condescension, and that is why I read your piece and immediately felt it was insulting. It condescended to anyone with an honestly informed opinion of Banksy’s art, which basically means it condescended to everybody.

    1. Site-specific art is artwork created specifically for a location. Wiki says “Typically, the artist takes the location
      into account while planning and creating the artwork,” but I think it’s come to be used by:
      1) artists who come up with something last minute
      2) galleries and fair directors who coax an artist to assemble something just for them
      3) galleries that once had an original installation and want to brag about it every once in a while
      😉

  2. I don’t see Banksy’s populism as being part of politics, I see it as being for and available to the general populous for free. I see Banksy’s populism in the article where it states, “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.” Its the difference between coming upon a Bansky leopard on a distressed wall that has become more interesting or paying $25 to enter a museum and see a Koons balloon dog dominating a gallery that has become less interesting. Real, non-genre art can be both low or high quality.

    For additional ideas about the significance of “site specific” art I suggest looking into “Situated Aesthetics,” a book which explores externalism within aesthetics. The book proposes, “The external world is relevant and indeed constitutive of the subject, which is more extended than the body.” This is much bigger than the context of just art history and place.

  3. No need to call me Mr. Vartanian, but I appreciate your perspective on this, and I have to say that most people will admit they enjoy Rockwell’s images, but the question is “how” they enjoy it.

    1. Very well Hrag, even through we are on the Banksy article and it may be confusing for readers to understand what we are discussing I will address this question of “how”. My issue with Cat’s Rockwell article has to do with how she enjoys it which seems to be a method most art writers adopt today. As opposed to the Bansky article where she has decided to address his work based on context rather than aesthetic or as I would prefer to term as Formalism. The later approach was used in the Rockwell piece which remains a weaker article because it missed the opportunity to address the content or as Cat would prefer context of the work. This is a topic Cat and I disagree for she has stated that there is nothing there (no context).

      I understand the irony of addressing Rockwell as an illustrator and artist but would have found it more interesting if she contextualized him with the same spirit as Bansky. However I would be soooo bold as to say that Bansky is the Rockwell of our time.

      1. I think you’re actually right. I personally find Banksy more interesting for the social dimension of his work rather than the aesthetics, and that’s true of Rockwell for me too.

        1. Happy to hear that now if only Cat can at least understand, not to agree but at least to see the social implications that Rockwell represents in the context of his time. There is obviously a lot of satire there as well.

          I will continue to review Hyperallergic for more thoughtful articles, cheers.

          1. Cat has her opinion, and I think he picks a different facet to explore in her articles, which I enjoy, and I think that’s what makes Hyperallergic rich, the diversity of opinions/voices.

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