Banksy would probably hate “The Art of Banksy” — but that doesn’t mean you have to
Before the experiment, however, there is the exhibition, which opened on February 17th. It bills itself as “the greatest Banksy exhibition ever put together,” with $35 million worth of works by the mysterious British graffiti artist in tow – all on loan from private collectors, not taken from public display. The show is Banksy authorized, a point that his clearinghouse website Pest ControlIt makes it absolutely clear: “Banksy has NOTHING to do with any of the current or recent shows and they are nothing like a real Banksy show,” it reads. “They could be crap so please don’t come to us for a refund.”
The exhibition follows Banksy’s work from his early days as a sprayer in Bristol in the 1990s, through his time with the collective Pictures on Walls, to his iconic pieces such as “girl with balloon” and “Love is in the air.” There is no lack of iconoclasts either, such as “Napalm (Can’t beat this feeling)‘, a modification of a famous Vietnam War photograph, and ‘Decentralized Parliament‘, an oil painting that replaces British politicians with chimpanzees. His album covers, pencil sketches and custom-made clothes are also on display, as are videos of his longtime collaborator Ben Eine talking about their work together.
The irony can’t be overlooked either. There’s a dissonance that comes with realizing that the people who look at his treasure trove Anti-capitalist artworks had to fork up first $30 for a ticket. Or with watching people photograph his pieces, the groupthink lambasting just to use the photos as such social media fodder.
Also, what does it mean that the work of the world’s most famous street artist is housed in a gallery? Especially given that Banksy once described the art world – as a quote on an exhibition wall puts it – as “a rest home for the overprivileged, the overbearing and the weak”. The headstrong artist has always had a penchant for crazier ways of presenting his work, like when he staged the famous self-destruct of a canvas from Girl with Balloon and left it tattered shortly after the auction. In “The Art of Banksy”, the two “Girl with Balloon” prints are hung behind a thin cord to keep visitors from getting too close.
According to Corey Ross, President and CEO of Starvox Exhibits, host of the North American series The Art of Banksy, this tension is intentional. “There’s a degree of irony behind the irony,” he said in an interview with the Globe. “It’s a dichotomy in itself.” Finally, Ross says, Banksy was the one who originally sold all the pieces on display to collectors, although Banksy’s work trades in anti-capitalist satire (although in many cases he donates the profit). In a way, ending a visit to the gift shop makes the previous material survive its landing extra well.
“He had to play the systems to even get the artwork as publicly known as it is,” Ross said. “I’m not sure that in any way diminishes the value of what he has to say and what he has contributed to political art.”
Visitors don’t seem to think so anyway. Tighe Smalley, who was there with his wife last week, said he was drawn to Banksy’s countercultural attitudes. “There’s so much social commentary on it that I feel like a serious artist wouldn’t investigate it,” he said. “I take photos of his quotes to put on my Instagram.”
Likewise, Carl McCarthy, a Banksy fan, gave no indication that the setting dampened the work’s impact. “He’s not afraid to tell you how it is,” McCarthy said while viewing the original cover designed by Banksy for a Blur album. “He puts it right there, out in the open.”
Dominique Litif-Nelson, a recent graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design who works as a host at the show, was more contradictory. “It’s almost like he doesn’t want to, but at the same time he does,” she said. Banksy’s anonymity, she added, makes his art “become a mirror within itself. You look at yourself through his work.”
The gallery setting offers a different perspective for some visitors, like Mattie Koeneman, who the artist came to like after living in Surrey as a child. “It’s really great to see all of his work in one place,” said Koeneman, who came to the show with her father.
Others, like Kerlyne Jean, expected the exhibition to be more of a spectacle, like the two immersive Van Gogh exhibitions or Frida: Immersive Dream (also produced by Starvox), but said they didn’t mind the classic setting have. “He deserves a gallery,” she said. She was particularly drawn to Girl with Balloon, probably the artist’s best-known work – and her long-running phone screensaver. “I call it my Mona Lisa,” Jean said.
Whatever the exhibition does, it seems to work: The opening weekend was sold outaccording to the Art of Banksy Instagram, and the show has been extended by six weeks to May 15 “due to the popularity of our exhibition.” said another Instagram post. In April, the traveling show travels to Denver. “A lot of these pieces would otherwise be in someone’s home or in a warehouse,” Ross said. “So it’s great that the public can actually experience them.”
Among the visitors I spoke to, there was a shared disappointment about the exhibit: “I was hoping to actually see him here tonight,” Smalley said. Unlikely of course. The first Banksy quote taped to the wall upon entering the exhibition is: “No one ever listened to me until they knew who I am” – another revealing irony.
But maybe the elusive figure will show up one day, in Boston or elsewhere. In the meantime, we can all watch The Art of Banksy for some comfort.
Dana Gerber can be reached at email@example.com