A subversive genius. An anonymous contrarian. My most recent Halloween costume. It’s a name that recalls a gritty aesthetic and a bleak subject matter, plus a myriad of fantastic tales – from being shot at in the West Bank to sneaking his own art into MoMA. Though his identity remains unknown, his work certainly doesn’t. Banksy is possibly today’s most world-renowned and controversial street artist.
From New York to London to Paris, wherever a Banksy work may pop up in the world you can be sure the image of the latest thought-provoking statement of the Bristol-born artist will be shared thousands of times over social media by news sites, art experts and enthusiasts alike. Generally, Banksy’s work is held in high esteem for its provocative nature and generation of discussion and thought around the Big Issues of our world today – corporate greed, chemical warfare, dismal consumerism and the despairing prospect of Paris Hilton’s fame, for example; but as pointed out by many critics (Charlie Brooker’s 2011 opinion piece for The Guardian, particularly) our understanding of Banksy’s artwork can sometimes be limited by a certain evasive feeling. Take, for example, Caveman Fast Food. At first glance, an analysis might be something like this: “Er, caveman… the fast food industry… human nature… etc.” You know, you get it, but you don’t really… get it. So, in this week’s Arts section, we’re doing a rundown of some of Banksy’s best-known works and what they (might) mean.
1. Flower Thrower, 2003
Perhaps the best-known of all Banksy’s works and the subject of countless reproductions from wall posters to tattoos, the iconic Flower Thrower depicts a rioter, clad in a balaclava and motioning as if to throw his delicate bouquet of flowers (which substitute for a Molotov Cocktail) into the throes of a street riot. The rioter himself is sprayed entirely in black and white, with the flowers being the only source of colour in this piece. Banksy is known for being a firm pacifist, and the message of this work is clear. With the flowers acting as a symbol of gentleness and hope in a place where there should be a weapon of destruction, the artist communicates his anti-war stance and belief in waging peace, not war. As with many of Banksy’s pieces, it is now considered so valuable that it is kept under a sheet of perspex glass to prevent theft.
2. Cardinal Sin, 2011
In 2011, Banksy unveiled the installation of his latest work, Cardinal Sin, at his own favourite gallery, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Cardinal Sin depicts the bust of a 17th century priest that has had its face sawn off, and in its place, tiles which create a pixelated image. Immediately, there is a reminiscence of the pixelated faces of criminals that we see daily on television. When asked about the meaning of this piece, Banksy told journalists: “The statue? I guess you could call it a Christmas present. At this time of year it’s easy to forget the true meaning of Christianity – the lies, the corruption, the abuse.” Cardinal Sin serves as a powerful statement about the abuse scandals within the Catholic Church, and about the handling of the abuse by the Church. It forces us to consider how the abusers are remembered in our society and who is to be held accountable. Banksy states: “I’m never sure who deserves to be put on a pedestal or crushed under one.”
3. The Elephant in the Room, 2006
Perhaps the most controversial of all Banksy’s artwork, for both the animal abuse allegations that arose from this piece and the criticism from many in the art world who claim the piece to be pretentious, The Elephant in the Room was unveiled at Banksy’s 2006 Barely Legal exhibition in Los Angeles. The Elephant in the Room featured Tai, a 37 year-old Indian elephant, who had been covered head to foot in non-toxic children’s face paint in order to blend into the wallpaper behind her. Tai was coloured a deep shade of red, with a gold Fleur de Lis pattern repeated all over her body. The Fleur de Lis pattern was extremely popular with the French monarchy and is reminiscent of lavish wealth and luxury. The piece’s title is a clear play on words and is meant to call to mind an obvious problem that people ignore or avoid discussing. In the pamphlet handed out at Barely Legal, Banksy describes the piece: ‘There’s an elephant in the room… 20 billion people under the poverty line’. The Elephant in the Room challenges the way we think, or perhaps, don’t think about the urgent problem of global poverty in the world. We sit idly by, like the two other subjects featured in the work, and ignore what is right in front of us.
4. Exit Through the Gift Shop, 2010
“I always used to encourage everyone I met to make art. I thought everyone should do it. I don’t really do that so much anymore.”
Breaking away from his usual media, Exit Through the Gift Shop is Banksy’s first and only film. Seemingly beginning as a street art and graffiti documentary, documenting the exploits of street artists like Space Invader and Shepard Fairey, Exit Through the Gift Shop takes an unusual turn as it follows the transformation of a kooky shop owner turned film-maker, Thierry Guetta, into the bizarre, eccentric persona of Mr.Brainwash. The film seems to challenge preconceived notions of firstly what art is, and secondly how we define what makes ‘good art’. Towards the end of the film, as Mr.Brainwash rigorously pours out batch after batch of artwork, made in almost mechanic, formulaic way, the concept of art seems to lose all meaning, and we are left questioning everything. It seems as though Banksy feels the same way: “It’s not Gone with the Wind, but… there’s probably a moral in there somewhere.”