Banksy, a world-renowned British graffiti artist, has become popular in the world of street art due to his controversial political views and unique stencilling technique. Over the years, he has produced several books such as Wall and Piece (2005), Existencilism (2002) and Pictures of Walls (2005). The artist also created a documentary in 2010 called Exit through the Gift Shop. Though Banksy describes the documentary in an interview with Paranoid Pictures as “the story of how one man set out to film the un-filmable. And failed,” he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in January 2011.
Personally, I am very intrigued by Banksy’s work: It fearlessly unveils his harsh and consistently controversial commentary on politics and society with dark humor and a distinct technique. Banksy’s preferred method of stencilling has allowed his work to become recognized on buildings everywhere. He has erupted into global popularity in the past decade – however, Banksy has managed to effectively hide his true identity from the world.
Many critics degrade his art, claiming him to have copied directly from French street artist Blek le Rat. Comparing the styles of the two artists, one would find they are nearly identical.
In response to the criticism, Banksy stated, “Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only twenty years earlier.” However, it’s doubtful Banksy could not have pulled straight from the earlier artist. In 1981, Blek le Rat began to stencil images of rats all around the city of Paris. Two decades later, Banksy populated the walls of London with similar rats. It leaves one to wonder whether Banksy is merely trying to revive Blek’s unique style, or take credit for it.
Either way, his attitude demonstrates an apathy toward either opinion. If you like Banksy, then you’re just one of his many followers and someone he occasionally targets with satire. If you don’t like Banksy, then he couldn’t care less about what you think.
Brian Sewell, an English art critic, does not sing Banksy’s praises. “He brilliantly subverted the global corporate machine by allowing his art to be used in the game Counter Strike… an anti-war game about settling your differences non-violently… is published by IGN Entertainment, a division of Fox Interactive. Peace out, man. That’ll show the pigs. Similarly, his art appeared on the cover of a Blur album, published by Parlophone, a division of EMI Group, the world’s largest music publisher. Fight the power!” says Sewell in the Londonist.
“I have a handful of graffiti friends who absolutely hate Banksy, saying he copied from Blek le Rat… but no artist is original,” said Gene Kim, senior and AP Art student. “[An artist] always… borrows from the previous generations and his peers… I certainly give [Banksy] props for being his own in terms of placement and the subject of his pieces. Although Blek has more of a traditional fine arts mentality when it comes to his works, I’d give the conceptual edge to Banksy… But [Banksy and Blek] have mutual respect for one another,” said Kim, when asked about the similarities between the artists’ styles. “The upcoming generation always has to level up the previous; that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
There is no doubt that Banksy possesses great artistic ability. The striking concepts that the artist has conjured over the years demonstrate his cleverness and ability to create radical commentary. Aside from his “outside art”, Banksy also creates “inside art:” subversions of famous works of art in which he copies the original but inserts his own artistic views. In his revamp of Monet’s Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies (1899), Banksy adds trash and a submerged shopping cart to the scenic water lily pond.
Due to his vast popularity, it is obvious that Banksy’s artwork has reached out to many people. The question is, is his popularity more like that of pseudo-pop artist Rebecca Black, or that of a credible artist with real talent?
In my opinion, the British vandal possesses real talent. Though his style may not have been evinced without the help of previous street artists, it has become extremely distinctive, striking and uniquely Banksy throughout his career. His unabashed graffiti has redefined the meaning of art. This, I think, is a concept which Banksy unveils in Exit Through the Gift Shop.
The film follows the artistic journey of Thierry Guetta, known as street artist Mr. Brainwash. Guetta, who was inspired by street artists such as Invader, Shepard Fairey and Banksy, began producing street art in Los Angeles and later opened his own art shows displaying the works he created. However, as he reveals in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Brainwash often simply hired other artists to create his work for him. He would give them the idea, and they would create the art. This crude technique echoes that of famous artist Andy Warhol. It poses an intriguing question to the viewer: is this true art? However, Banksy seems to ask: what is true art?
As with opinions on all art, the answer to this question will vary with each individual. If a work of art can have an impact on the way a person thinks, than it indeed is art. Call Banksy whatever you like — a delinquent, a vandal, a fraud, perhaps even a genius — he has been able to affect the minds of millions all over the globe, and this is a credible achievement.