There’s always been an understood link between art and capitalism. Even artists who reject the very nature of capitalism will still be part of this process, whether they like it or not.
This includes the popular, controversial and mysterious graffiti artist known as Banksy.
A product of Bristol, England’s underground scene, this person’s name and identity has never been revealed. Several possibilities have been suggested, including Robin Gunningham (former student at Bristol Cathedral Choir School), Robert Del Naja (graffiti artist and co-founder of the band Musical Attack) and Jamie Hewlett (comic book artist and co-founder of the band Gorillaz). It could be a female artist, too.
For now, it’s a mystery.
Banksy is regarded by some young adults as an international cultural icon. The elusive artist has taken credit for stencils, murals and paintings displayed in the London Zoo, British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Israeli West Bank barrier. He/she made a film, Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), which was later nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature.
Steve Lazarides, an art gallery owner who was Banksy’s agent from 1997 to 2008, recently launched a touring exhibition, The Art of Banksy. Its first North American stop is in Toronto at an old, abandoned warehouse.
I recently went with my wife and son to see the exhibition. It’s not my kind of art (I prefer traditional paintings and statues) and it’s not my kind of politics (I was likely the only conservative in attendance that day). Nevertheless, it was an interesting experience.
According to the souvenir program, “The origins of Banksy’s popularity without question came from the illegal artwork he produced on the streets,” like the infamous Queen Victoria Shutter. “The distinctive stencil aesthetic,” it went on, “combined with satirical and humorous subject matters proved a memorable combination for passersby.”
Banksy’s prints and wall murals contain his best-known work. This includes Rude Copper, Rage, the Flower Thrower, Turf War (former British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill with a green mohawk) and Laugh Now (a monkey wearing a sign, “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge”). There’s also Girl and Balloon – Diptych, showing a young girl with a heart-shaped balloon that’s escaped her grip. The program describes it as a piece that “exemplifies Banksy’s innate skill to distil complex emotional concepts into a succinct and universally understood image.”
Meanwhile, the massive Flag Wall, part of a 2006 Los Angeles exhibition, is a modern interpretation of the Iwo Jima flag-raising in a junkyard. It’s rather profound and worth a second look. Also intriguing were the 2006 prints entitled Morons, which is a scene from an old art auction with a frame containing the phrase, “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.” I hate to admit it but there’s some validity to this statement!
Yet the most intriguing part occurs when you walk past the final display and enter the gift shop.
There are huge amounts of overpriced merchandise from mugs to T-shirts, along with a large Aroma coffee stand. The large swath of progressive admirers were perusing and purchasing these items with great gusto.
It’s rather ironic considering Banksy’s art is usually interpreted as ultra left-wing, anti-establishment and pseudo-anarchistic. Moreover, it’s violently opposed to the capitalist impulse witnessed in this gift shop.
I contacted Tony Chapman, a communications/branding expert who I sometimes appear with on media panels, to see if he also felt this particular scenario was hypocritical.
“To see Steve Lazarides, Banksy’s former manager, tag his creative genius by staging an unsanctioned exhibit, complete with a souvenir shop, is the greed Banksy graffitied against,” Chapman responded by email. “I can only await his response – and I envision a large mural featuring a rat with a human face.”
Now that’s a work of Banksy most right-leaning capitalists would pay to see!
Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.