Banksy and the Co-Option of Rebellion

A recent piece for the University of Warwick newspaper The Boar looks at whether Banksy is still as subversive as he was when he started. As part of the paper’s tete a tete series, it provides two arguments and I was fortunate to have looked at one side of the debate:

At this moment, Banksy, the great recluse and sole artiste (with an e, thank you) whose preferred medium is graffiti, is being celebrated with a series of auctions, a gallery retrospective by one of his former acquaintances and a series of LEGO recreations. It is a sign of the movement he represents that the last of the three should be the most fitting tribute. In reality, however, Banksy is no longer as subversive as we would like him to be.

This is not his fault, if that is the right word we are looking for. In a world where any form of rebellion is either snuffed out or made mainstream, it is difficult for anyone as radical as him to maintain their vision for such a long time. Punk fashion went from being about deconstructing boundaries to being taken up by designer labels as a theme. The intellectual left became radicalised to the point where they are either misunderstood or submissive.

With Banksy, his co-option by the so-called practitioners of “high art” happened the minute it became unforgiveable to paint over his work. For the record, on a purely amateur basis of understanding art, I can admire the beauty in his work. If I take the politics out of it, I can objectively agree with the idea of putting his work in the Tate Modern. At the very least, I can agree with the decision to keep his work intact. The problem is that Banksy is supposed to be so much more than that.

His pieces tackle very heavy topics; the surveillance state (One Nation Under CCTV), the Arab-Israeli conflict (murals on the West Bank Barrier), and sexual health (Naked Man) are all areas he has looked at. As an outspoken critic of capitalism, his entire process is based on the idea of taking over public space, a form of guerrilla warfare against the class system in which the elites have to come face-to-face with eyesores.
All well and good, except for the fact that his work is revered.

While individual critics do resort to calling him a vandal, Banksy’s art is among the most sought-after pieces in the contemporary world. He wants to help dismantle capitalism. Good for him. I wonder how well he is achieving it when his pieces are being so shamelessly commoditised. At the same time, graffiti as a whole is still considered vandalism, which is one of the loudest, and weakest, arguments against the dismantling (or relocation) of the skate park in South Bank.

It would be wrong of me to say that Banksy has directly sold himself out. At the end of the day though, it does not matter. As soon as his work went from being “graffiti” to “art”, we lost him.


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