The End of an Era: A month of Banksy Street Art in New York
October has been a busy month in the art world. We had a government shutdown, a Banksy street art residence, and consequent reactions ranging from outrage to a revitalization of the question of defining art.
It all ties together, really, and that’s what I wanted to talk about before Halloween hits us full-force tonight and it’s November before we know it or remember how it came upon us so quickly.
(Hey. Remember when THIS happened?)
The first piece I wrote for the Angel Orensanz Foundation was a discussion about the definition of art, creatively entitled, “What is Art?” I scratched it out in a pitifully banged-up notebook during the long train ride from Richmond, VA to Penn Station, NYC.
I talked about how art is fundamentally dramatic—there are countless full-length theatrical dramas and comedies featuring characters that are artists or connoisseurs of art because of this quality. Whatever definition you assign to art, I believe it must allow for the drama and the conflict that is created by putting brush to canvas, hands to clay, etc. We thrive off of this drama, we need it, and we live for it because it illustrates the constant questions that percolate beneath the surface in us from day to day.
Too bad our society isn’t crafted to allow for the necessity of art.
In fact, we spend a lot of effort and money marginalizing art into something to do with leisure or entertainment. But there’s a difference—a monstrosity of a difference—between leisure/entertainment and art. Leaving the theatre after a production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal or Shakespeare’s Richard III, I’m certainly not at my leisure. Entertained? More like slapped in the face by humanity.
By the way, those productions I just listed? Totally playing right now in NYC. Check them out. You’re welcome.
So, of course, when the government shut down for the first time in seventeen years, what’s the first thing to be cut from funding?
The National Endowment for the Arts. In other words, the museums—the culture hubs, the “non-essentials.”
And in the middle of that conflict, Banksy comes to New York City for a self-curated artist’s residence and stirs the pot for us.
Banksy’s street art residency is called “Better Out Than In: an Artist’s Residency on the Streets of New York”, and beneath the stencil-outline header, a quote from Paul Cézanne triumphs the mission statement of the work.
All pictures painted inside, in the studio, will never be as good as those done outside.
I’ll say that perhaps the “outside” to which Cézanne referred might be of a slightly different context than the interpretation apparent in the Banksy street art, but in terms of impact? Banksy’s been spot-on.
All of a sudden art—regardless of how you define it—emerges as a buzzword, a hot topic, the spark that ignites a city of people, young and old, desperate for a cause to impassion them enough to speak out.
It’s impassioned me, anyway.
I’ve spoken to gallery owners, artists, event planners, businessmen, and students about Banksy street art in New York this past month and I encountered no one who had nothing to say, no comment to add. In fact, the topic has served as a jumping-off point to larger issues of politics and society and the boundaries that divide generation from generation.
For myself, I have always been loath to discuss political leanings with friends and acquaintances—the ensuing arguments inevitably evolve into a loop of misunderstanding and personal affront. I prefer to stay within the realm of art and theatre where I feel comfortable arguing my beliefs—and yes, maybe that makes me a coward, being afraid of engaging in a dispute for fear of defeat or humiliation.
“Graffiti does ruin people’s property and it’s a sign of decay and loss of control,” the mayor said, “Art is art, and nobody’s a bigger supporter of the arts than I am–you running up to somebody’s property or public property and defacing it is not my definition of art. Or it may be art, but it should not be permitted.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, October 2013.
And yet, this October, I found myself spewing fire over the contradictions arising between vandalism and art, between art as a necessity and our unhesitating cessation of its funding when goings get tough, between the opinions of the Mayor of New York and the arts community of his city.
Banksy’s residence brought me to a single, perhaps obvious conclusion:
If I argued before that art is fundamentally dramatic, then it also must be deeply political.
I’m going to risk sounding like a college sophomore writing a term paper and quote the dictionary at you here—a definition of the word political—“relating to relationships of power between people in an organization; to affairs of the state or government.”
Relationships of power between people. Yup. Sounds about right.
Art becomes the venue through which people can argue rights of individualism and power upon a level playing field. There are no mayors, governors, nor presidents: only personal expression and paintbrushes. And regardless of what you think of the Banksy street art and its artistic merits, his residence challenges us to question our relationship to one another, to our government, and to the city walls that house and protect us.
Call it graffiti or call it art.
It was swift, it was dramatic, and it defined the month of October for me and countless other New Yorkers. Happy Holidays, everyone.