Graffiti artist Banksy's month in New York a giant social experiment

British graffiti artist's month-long 'residency' in Big Apple was part art fair, part social experiment in which New Yorkers were in the rat's maze

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 7:43am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 7:43am


It has been a perfect tempest in a teapot, the distracting, frothy combination of art, money, celebrity and urban exploit that Banksy has brought to New York. This British graffiti artist, purported millionaire, activist, filmmaker and prankster spent the last month roaming the city, perpetuating what is - depending upon your point of view - street art, political resistance or vandalism.

As he did his thing, the US federal government shut down and reopened, the NSA spying scandal spread, and the Affordable Care Act limped into action. What better way to forget your troubles and get happy?

It began on October 1 when Banksy's website announced a month-long "artist's residency" entitled "Better Out Than In". The website said that each day of October, Banksy would unveil a work somewhere in the five boroughs and announce its location online. The works would take various forms - "elaborate graffiti, large scale street sculpture, video, installation and substandard performance art" - according to an e-mail from a representative of Banksy to The Village Voice.

Banksy madness ensued, on the street and even more in the media, as if October were, somehow, a slow news month. It didn't hurt that Banksy is one of the few graffiti artists whose work has been successfully monetized - with high prices paid at auction for prints and occasional paintings, as well as for pieces of Banksy-limned walls.

In addition, he seems to have a kind of genius for self-promotion. His anonymity, his anti-establishment views, his terse quotations all contribute to the Banksy mystique and brand.

The project attracted scores of devoted fans intent on a glimpse of their hero or his work, people seeking new selfie opportunities and those intrigued by the prospect of seeing someone chance on some money. It has also resembled an extended joke on the art world: a widely dispersed art fair played out in fits and starts.

Banksy seemed to conduct a kind of social experiment, using the city as a rat maze into which he dropped different kinds of bait to see how New Yorkers would react. There was paranoia, greed and competitiveness as well as camaraderie, flash-mob-like fun and sincere or cash-driven reverence. People who had barely heard of Banksy until one of his works turned up on their buildings were suddenly hiring guards or covering them with plexiglass or roll-down gates.

Some graffiti pieces lasted less than two hours before they went the way of all graffiti, and much else, quickly sinking beneath the restless surface of the city.

Radhika Subramaniam, a professor at Parsons The New School for Design in Manhattan, says Banksy is part of a long tradition of graffiti artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat whose work ultimately earned recognition from the art establishment.

He also fits into a contemporary trend of opening up public spaces to conversations about who owns them and what can happen there - especially in today's cleaned-up New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg, when asked about Banksy, called graffiti "a sign of decay and loss of control".

But is Banksy any good? "There's plenty of wit in what he does, as well as some thoroughly ordinary, sometimes pleasant, sometimes banal, but sometimes sweet things," Subramaniam said. He's also "not a naif in the art world. After all, who would care if you or I were to set up a blog and enact a residency like this? It's only because he's able to marshal this kind of PR and marketing that ... catapults his residency to another level and elicits these polarised points of view."

Banksy is best known for stencilled images on walls, with or without words.

The silhouette stencils sometimes evinced a witty sense of site specificity. One, near the northeast corner of West 79th Street and Broadway, depicts a boy hoisting a big mallet next to a New York standpipe connected to a fire alarm about three metres up the wall, creating a hammer-bell strength-test scene. (At the moment, the work is protected by plexiglass.)

There have been moments of juvenile bad taste, such as a video shot on Staten Island that showed a busy anthill converted into a woman's vulva with the addition of two curvy torso-like lines. It gives "Better Out Than In" a creepy misogynist twist. And in at least one instance of mocking the audience, a Banksy proxy set up a stand in Central Park stacked with stencilled Banksy canvases. But without the name in evidence, only a few sold, suggesting the Banksy allure has little to do with what his art looks like.

The strongest works were not graffiti at all. A sphinx built out of rubble in Queens looked great online, like a spectral sculpture by Huma Bhabha.

The standout of the series - and by far the most political - was The Sirens of the Lambs, a truck with cute automaton heads of sheep and cows poking through the slats, making alarmed noises on their way to slaughter. It was both funny and wrenching, something out of Wallace & Gromit that might convert children viewing it to a lifetime of vegetarianism.

He caused another sort of sensation with an essay condemning the design of the new World Trade Centre as "a disaster" posted on his website. It included a picture of the tower with the words "replace with better artwork".

The essay was designed to resemble a New York Times opinion column. The artist said he submitted it to the newspaper, which declined to publish it. Banksy wrote that the tower lacked "any self-confidence". He likened it to a "tall kid at a party, awkwardly shifting his shoulders trying not to stand out from the crowd", adding: "It so clearly proclaims the terrorists won."

That last comment upset many New Yorkers, including Brian Major, 51, of Brooklyn. "Enough!" Major said. "Who is this guy? Everybody's got a right to an opinion but what gives him any kind of credibility in New York? Shut up, Banksy! Go home!"

But Sean Lynch, 25, of Staten Island thinks Banksy is "one of the more captivating artists of our generation".

Lynch said it was magical visiting Banksy sites around the city and hearing conversations about art that the works inspired, with "people of all different walks and cultures sharing opinions, sharing stories. ... The walls started to talk to them, in a way."

Last week's Banksy seemed designed to demonstrate both his charitable instincts and his dollar value. The Banality of the Banality of Evil, is a saccharine, Kinkade-esque landscape to which Banksy added a man in Nazi uniform, seen from behind gazing off into the distance, and his signature under the name of the original artist, K Sager. It was dropped off anonymously at a Housing Works Thrift Shop on East 23rd Street on Wednesday and was soon on display in the window.

It was also the focus of an online auction. The starting price was US$76,000 and by Thursday night, it had been sold for US$615,000. All proceeds will go to Housing Works, an organisation dedicated to "fighting to end Aids and homelessness".

In a gesture that was simultaneously serious and self-mocking, audio commentary posted on Thursday on Banksy's website called his final piece - his name in bubble letters by the road - "an homage ... to the most prevalent form of graffiti in the city that invented it for the modern era. Or it's another Banksy piece that's full of hot air."

Additional reporting by Associated Press