Banksy: A Visual Protest
On ViewChiostro Del Bramante
September 8, 2020 – April 11, 2021
When Joachim Pissarro and I started working 15 years ago on our two books about what we dubbed “wild art”—art from outside the gallery and museum world—we were surprised at how much we found. In this country, in Europe, and even in China, there is a great deal of graffiti. And some of these artists had massive websites. We discovered that street art is an extremely serious business. Banksy, who was probably born in 1973, is without any doubt the most famous of these wild artists. The recent self-destruction of one of his works immediately after Sotheby’s auctioned it has cemented his reputation. An enviably clever artificer, his art has been written about at great length. A vast assortment of Banksy’s works are for sale on eBay, there is at least one full-length film about him, and he has had both grand collectors and many museum shows. The large exhibition currently occupying the Chiostro del Bramante in Rome is but the latest such show.
Viewed superficially, Banksy’s works may seem varied. His subjects include a bomb thrower preparing to throw flowers, two grannies knitting punk sweaters, and a combat helicopter with a pink bow. In fact, however, the satirical force of most of his images derives from a single familiar device. Just as René Magritte’s Surrealist paintings often rely upon unexpected juxtapositions of banal objects or scenes, a daylight sky and a nighttime street for example, so Banksy shocks by creating irrational correspondences. Bomb throwers don’t throw flowers, grannies don’t knit punk sweaters, and combat helicopters don’t have bows. Consequently, seeing these images is momentarily jarring. Sometimes Banksy flirts with blasphemy, as in Christ with Shopping Bags (2004), with a crucified Christ holding shopping bags in outstretched arms. But he gets into trouble when he tries to juggle more than two pictorial elements, as in Because I’m Worthless (2004). Here, a rat wears a peace sign necklace and carries a poster that says: “Because I’m Worthless.” This image just feels confused.
Occasionally, I grant, Banksy falls into inspiration, as with an untitled image from 2008 showing a zebra with some of its stripes hung as if they were washed clothing on a line put out to dry. And I greatly admire another untitled work, this one from 2004, which shows two male English cops kissing. But mostly his work over two decades is very repetitive. Generally these are remarkably tame pictures. When the curator Gianni Mercurio links them to Soviet revolutionary art, the work of the Situationist International, and the French activists circa 1968, such comparisons feel forced and visually unconvincing.
What interests me most about Banksy, I confess, is that he fascinates so many people. He has an extraordinary mystique. As the gallery announcement rightly proclaims, he is “the world’s most famous unknown artist.” Our visual culture is enchanted with very detailed biographies, as if knowing all the personal details about famous artists would help us understand their works. And so, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the success of Banksy in avoiding such scrutiny contributes to his reputation. In an era of omnipresent surveillance he’s preserved his privacy. I suspect that this exceptional achievement is one reason why he is so admired. In that way, he is comparable to the novelist Elena Ferrante, who also inspires much detective work concerning her identity. Name another internationally famous street artist—name another internationally celebrated contemporary Italian novelist. Both Banksy and Ferrante are singular figures.
But perhaps my present critical judgment is unjust. For just as seeing Catholic altarpieces in a public art museum is to consider them outside of their original intended setting, so is looking at these works in a catalogue, like viewing them in an exhibition, is to take them out of context. I fondly remember a Banksy in Naples, which was strikingly effective street art. It depicts the Madonna with a handgun above her head, set alongside a typical little Neapolitan street memorial that shows the Virgin Mary in a more familiar context (you can find it online). Street art is a law unto itself, as it’s often quickly painted and meant to be seen by passing bystanders. To display such works in a space like the Chiostro del Bramante, then, poses a severe challenge. And of course, since Rome is inaccessible to American travelers right now, I saw them just in an exhibition catalogue—but these images were never meant to all be seen in quick succession.
Just as a Raphael fresco would not be effective street art, I expect that Banksy’s works are not at their best in this art world setting. But what am I saying, when it happens that the Chiostro del Bramante, site of Banksy’s show, is immediately adjacent to Basilica of Santa Maria della Pace, where you can see Raphael’s The Sibyls (c. 1515) in a display marking the 500th anniversary of his death. And so the online publicity promotes a dialogue between these two figures on the basis of “the evocative power of their images. An innovative language that made them protagonists and revolutionaries in their time.” Would that I could get to Rome to test that claim!