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Banksy Invades New York to Celebrate Celebrity

Art beautifully stenciled or ironically driving past in a glint of a moment, the UK-based “street artist” known as Banksy is showing New York City that art can be everywhere. Artistic statements can find a place in the public square once again with a spray can.

Banksy’s brand of art is often playful, sometimes serious with social commentary and often offers a critical view point of consumerism and of the art world itself. His talent for using objects of the street itself to set the context for his work is matchless. He frequently incorporates architectural elements or found street objects. He makes the street apart of the art and art apart of the street.

A blitz of media has been exploding around Banksy and his art in New York City. From Bloomberg’s institutional police-state response, to Banksy’s original artworks being sold for $60 (worth estimated $20,000 or more each) in a Central Park stand labeled “spray paint art” and to Banksy’s most recent criticism of the new World Trade Center, if people have not heard of the artist they have now. And of course name recognition is everything in the art world—or, shall I say, celebrity is everything pop world.

Yet as Banksy’s identity has remained anonymous as the individual, his brand is everywhere. Some art gives cause to great questions. Banksy himself is that question. Would anyone care if it wasn’t Banksy? Why does anyone care what a street artist has to say about the World Trade Center? If his identity is unknown, why do people simply accept that it is the work an individual artist and not a collective group of artists? (Given the complexity of the artworks and the very execution, it is highly unlikely one artist completes these projects—in fact there is frequently more than one person on a Banksy project.) For that matter, why does his identity matter at all? Either way he is an institution. He is the art.

Banksy is as he just as any celebrity is an individual. And he is, as just as many institutions, a brand based on publicity. Love or hate Banksy, love or hate McDonalds and Ronald McDonald (who Banksy satirically addressed with his Ronald statue getting shoes shined by an actor in New York City), he is not going anywhere for now. And just like Ronald he is champion of consumption. The image of the street artist bucking the system is just as contrived as the image of any pop icon. He seems to bask in the delight of all the attention of the mainstream media (letters to the New York Times) to which he seems to rebel. He shrouds his identity yet works through a publicist. How many street artists see fit to employ a publicist? He is critical of the art world and frequently of consumer culture, yet he has created the commodified image of the seemingly last vestige of truly independent artist statement: street art.

He has created the street artist as celebrity, as product. It is about the idea of Banksy not about the art. Why else does he launch a month’s campaign in New York City where most everything is for sale and celebrities are easily recognized? Maybe it is to tell the children living in the South Bronx that they’re “Ghetto for Life,” an affirmation I am sure they do not need. They can get that from hipsters ready for some real estate speculation or looking for ironic t-shirt slogans.

Maybe it is because New York is the center of the art world and with that the center of celebrity. Remember, Banksy did not go to the one of the many lesser known places for his “residency,” where street art could be alive and relevant, where the confrontation of aesthetics, power, and consumerism are a part of everyday life. Not there, because there his art would have to stand on its own. After all, people go to New York to make it in America, and Banksy has made it.

And now the shopping malls of America are waiting with anticipation for him to tag them with statements of anti-consumerism in this most postmodern of worlds.

Jesse Schmidbauer, Buffalo

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