I recently heard a radio spot on the Brian Lehrer show about this month's Banksy residency and the pompousness, ignorance, and pretensiouness of the guest and senior art critic of New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz made me preettty mad. I was compelled to leave a comment on the WNYC website, but it ended up a liiiiiitle bit longer than the recommended 300 characters. So here it is:
I think that the guest's analysis of Banksy's work is far too formalist, and he really misses the greater point of the work (especially the stencil work), which comes through more when you think about the specific context of each image.
It doesn't seem that Saltz is really familiar with the scope of Banksy's work so let me lay out some important groundwork. The three main themes that Banksy is dealing with are:
1. The social, political, and economic effects of imperialist capitalism
2. The sensationalism, commercialization, falseness, and pretension in the contemporary art market
3. And the forfeit of true experience that results from a digital media obsessed audience
Looking at his work through these lenses gives a far more nuanced and fulfilling understanding of the work. For instance, the dog and hydrant image. At first, the image seems to be a low brow, amateurish piece of graffiti for some cheap chuckles (which is basically the entirety of Saltz's criticism). But the important part of the piece is not the execution of the image, but the LOCATION of the image.
Banksy has specifically put this image in CHELSEA! It's no coincidence that he chose to have the dog peeing on one of the global centers of the commercial art world. Regardless of whether Banksy is stating that underground art (like street art) informs, inspires and is later capitalized on by blue chip art galleries, or whether it's just a open show of contempt towards the art machine, it is the location of the graffiti, not the sophistication of it's execution that imbues the image with significance.
Further evidence of this can be found on the Banksy website devoted to the NYC residency, or by calling the 1-800 numbers often posted alongside various works. If you listen to these tongue-in-cheek, clearly satirical "audio guides" you can get some further insight into the specific meanings of some of the pieces.
All in all, I feel that the guest and many people in the public are falling victim to the well placed trap that Banksy has specifically set to point out the ridiculous, sensationalist attitude towards fame, and how that translates into monetary value. Saltz doesn't hesitate to proclaim (both in the radio segment and the accompanying video) the absurd amounts of money that people pay for walls tagged by Banksy, but fails see that the work costs absolutely nothing to experience in person. There are no museum fees, no institutional hours, no restrictions whatsoever to see some spray paint on a wall, or a truck on a street. They are open to the public, free of charge. It's only people like Saltz that contribute to the idolatry and mythos of the "Art Star" that Banksy is rallying against!
But the ironic flip-side of the openness of graffiti, is that when given the choice to have a genuine experience, without the pomp and pretension of artistic institutionalism, people usually give up their authentic moment for a digital replica. More often than not, people seek the proof of experience rather than the experience itself. I.E. "Let's all stand around and tag our instagram with Banksy"! (I'm gonna record this live concert and see the whole show through the screen of an iPhone too!)
If you're going to go out to East New York, or Bed Stuy, or the South Bronx to see some art, isn't the point to experience that journey? Isn't it worthwhile to go to East New York, or Bed Stuy, or the South Bronx just to see what it's like? What's it like for the people who pass through those streets everyday? Did you eat at restaurant in one of these neighborhoods? Did you interact with any of the residents? Or did you just come to snap a pic to show your friends that you were there?