There’s a new king of New York City — and it’s Banksy, the elusive British-based graffiti artist. On Monday, Banksy announced that he would spend the month of October staging an entire show of 31 works, one daily, all over the city’s streets. The show, “Better Out Than In,” takes the New York contemporary art scene out of Chelsea galleries and into new and unexpected territory.
But what’s Banksy really doing in NYC? Mocking the creation and analysis of art, of course, like he always does. Banksy’s art has been offering witty and satirical sociopolitical commentary since the mid 1990s. His global body of work can be anywhere from playful and silly to pointed and offensive, and it’s impossible to know which side we’re going to get. “Better Out Than In” seems to edge on the former — featuring two boys reaching up to an anti-graffiti sign in one piece, a scrawl of “THIS IS MY NEW YORK ACCENT” with the neatly typed “… normally I write like this” below it in another, and finally, a fire hydrant thanking a dog for peeing on it.
Banksy’s works are ephemeral because they’re illegal — somewhere in between art and vandalism — and also play into the hostile, typically stigmatized graffiti culture. There is thus a narrow timeframe in which New Yorkers can see these pieces; Tuesday’s boys have already been painted over, either by the city or a rival street artist. Banksy’s exhibit is a sort of catch-me-if-you-can between the anonymous artist and the anonymous viewers, with the perfectly stenciled figure(s) as the controversial middleman.
So what is it about the middleman that is so captivating? Why are people drawn to engage in Banksy’s scavenger hunt across a city littered with graffiti? Banksy’s muses are so ordinary, so everyday, but there’s also a perfection to them, a certain inhuman quality. Well, actually, this is all part of the Banksy experience. He acknowledges on each work’s accompanying automated recordings — accessed by cellphone — that his pieces are created by “spraying spray paint through a piece of cardboard; or to give it its proper term, cheating.”
Such candidness is likely Banksy’s greatest draw. There’s no artistic talent involved in a dog stencil peeing, but there’s a relatable, even seductive, sense of humor and intelligence attached to the mysterious man behind it. It’s an appeal that has become nearly counter-cultural. Miley Cyrus has grabbed our attention by leaving nothing to the imagination, Kim Kardashian’s clothing neckline drops lower by the day, and yet Banksy thrives on just the opposite. He leaves everything up to speculation, reminding the public that, at the end of the day, everybody does love a good mystery.
In fact, his audio guide — traditionally a helpful tool in navigating exhibitions — further clouds the meaning behind his work. The automated voice sincerely claims to have no idea what the graffiti means. When describing the boys, he states the obvious, “the children represent youth and the sign represents a sign,” and offers a few pedantic lines such as, “Is this a response to the primal urge to take the tools of our oppression and turn them into mere playthings?” In one recording, the voice is completely drowned out by the annoying sound of elevator music. Banksy thereby ruthlessly mocks contemporary artistic analysis, which he takes to be the random assignment of significance to what may be absolutely meaningless. Oftentimes, as much as we want it, there isn’t one overarching takeaway from a piece. And Banksy’s work embodies this to the fullest. His art is so temporary that you can’t revisit it. Instead, the conversation he is starting is an immediate one between you and the stenciled figure in front of you, and no audio guide is going to help you discover its meaning.
Yet even with this mantra, Banksy immortalizes art in the most timeless way possible: social media. He tweets, Instagrams and updates a website daily with his works and musings — I’ve already caught a few glimpses of his October escapades on my own feed. In fact, a woman interviewed by BBC said that she hunted down Banksy’s Oct. 1 works because she loves taking pictures of street art and doesn’t have any Banksys in her collection — of iPhone photos that is. In the end, this is what makes Banksy’s message all the more confusing: While he touts the ephemeral nature of his work, he simultaneously seeks to preserve it in the eternal time vault of the Internet.
Ultimately, we are then left with the inevitable question: What is Banksy really trying to say about art, culture, New York City and the relationship between the three? I’m going to quote the automated voice on this one and say, “Are you kidding me? Who writes this stuff? Anyway, you decide. Really, please do. I have no idea.”