17 May 2010

The Holy Relics of Banksy

Mark Stryker in the Detroit Free Press reports a multilayered story that says a lot about the contemporary attitude to art and, indirectly, heritage (h/t to Jon DeVore for the tip!). British street artist Banksy has been on an American tour, doing pieces here in there. (One suspects there's a tie-in to the new documentary about his work, now showing in the US.) He stopped at the Packard factory in Detroit, a huge, sprawling, abandoned car factory with a romantic, run down air that's a ton of fun to wander around in if you have any love at all for ruins.

Yours truly at the plant last year. Somehow I picked up a case of poison ivy!

So Banksy left this piece on his visit to Packard. I like his work but I don't think this is one of his best I think this one is weak as hell (it feels a little oversentimental to me, and a little bit mistimed since trees are in fact growing everywhere inside the factory, and parts of the city itself are reverting to forest):

(Jason H. Matthews/Detroit Free Press)

The interesting bit is not the piece but what happened next, and what it says about attitudes to art and heritage. The owners of the 555 Gallery, a notprofit gallery and studio space, took it on themselves to "save" the work and take it to their gallery. Check it out:

Naturally, the act was controversial, a sort of 'privatization' of public art. It's also a classic case of starf•cking in a city full of great graffiti art. (I have this image of the 555 guys muttering 'the precious, the precious' as they scurry toward West Vernor with their new treasure.) At the end of the article there's a shocking quote that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time:
Staff member Eric Froh said that while the painting’s meaning has shifted outside of the Packard plant, it retains an expressive power akin to Renaissance religious artifacts or antiquities uncovered by archeologists and now seen in museums. He also noted that the controversy has already become part of its accumulated meaning.“The work can now live on for many years,” said Froh.
I was really flabbergasted by this statement, and it's taken me a week to sort out what I think it means. First the laughable part: people need to stop kissing Banksy’s ass with such slobbery abandon. I like his work, much of it is at a very high level and achieves poetry - but it’s the first sign of irrelevance as an artist when you stop being controversial and start being revered. The beauty of his work comes from its engagement with a urban space and the things going on in it. It's intended to be temporary and site-specific. Putting Banksy in a gallery destroys much of the point, or rather transforms it into something totally different. (Click here for the full irony of putting Banksy in a gallery setting.) I think the 555 guys' choice to take the piece demonstrates either that they really have no idea what his art is about, or that they care more about owning a relic than an artwork.

Which brings us to an important question: is Banksy's work holy? In archaeology, as in art, there is a great battle between two ways of understanding, two epistemologies if you will. On the one hand, there’s the idea that art is part of society and serves a social function, that it fits into your daily life. Then there’s the idea that art or artifacts express Universal Truth, which is basically saying that Art is God. (After modernism, I suppose, that was all the religion one was allowed to feel.)

For archaeologists, old stuff is interesting because it gives us a window into everyday experiences of people in the past and how the human world once was. Most of us would rather not find gold, which is just a distraction. Everyone’s happy to find an attractive artifact, of course, but the meaning of archaeological artifacts is in their context and their relationship to each other. Taking them out of that context takes away almost all of their meaning except whatever 'prettiness' something has. This is why it’s such a tragedy when people buy looted artifacts – no one begrudges people for wanting to touch the past, but the whole process of looting robs us all of knowledge that could add so much richness to our understanding.

Hey Banksy - all this IS trees, bro. Come back in the 20th century.

A lot of collectors justify buying looted artifacts by saying that they have a kind of eternal truth of their own, or represent some cosmic aesthetic ideal. It's basically a religious attitude. And it’s that religious attitude to art in itself is something I’ve never understood, and makes it hard for me to take museums seriously sometimes. The things that David Froh of 555 parallels to the Banksy piece - archaeological artifacts or renaissance Jesus paintings - were created to serve a social purpose, not to be contemplated as aesthetic icons in themselves. A Greek vase without the context of funerary customs or the symposium might be pretty but bores me to tears. And a Christian icon without religious feeling is nonsense, even blasphemy. Maybe you want a bloody Christ on the wall if you're into the aesthetics of torture or something, but I think mostly it's just pretentiousness - unless you really understand it in a spiritual sense.

I feel like, if you want a religious feeling, you should get a religion. What can you even say about people who are too ‘sophisticated’ or ‘postmodern’ for a religious practice, but then go looking for spiritual fulfillment and eternal truth in abstract paintings, performance art, or Banksy pieces? I'm not saying one has to be religious, but I wish people would be self-aware about the spiritual impulse that is common to almost everyone, and direct it accordingly.

Unfortunately the rhetoric of ‘preservation’ and 'conservation' of artworks or artifacts leans pretty heavily on religious-emotional arguments. Which makes it hard to make obvious observations, like: not every archaeological artifact needs to be in a museum. Not all art is worth saving. Not everything old can or should be preserved. For all its wonderful aspects, the preservation impulse also has the aroma of fear hanging around it - the fear of death. In a western society which has only the most vague and ephemeral expectations for the afterlife, preserving the past seems like a way to hold on to the present and not let it slip away.

But trying to save everything can become a pathology that keeps us from engaging with our lives right now. And an ephemeral work in an ephemeral media, put intentionally on a structure that so eloquently expresses the ephemerality of an industrial empire that once seemed permanent? Trying to save such a thing verges on the pathetic.

Endnote: This rant is more or less friendly - I was a patron of 555 in its Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit locations. I've had fun there, and I appreciate the hard work that has gone into keeping the space alive in an extremely rough economic and artistic climate.


  1. I'm very much not into Banksy. His work just reminds me of 60s & 70s English commie propaganda, filtered through adbusters.

  2. Yeah, that's exactly his thing - romantic English leftism combined with 90s anti-consumerism. Plus a liberal dash of Situationism!

  3. "but I wish people would be self-aware about the spiritual impulse that is common to almost everyone, and direct it accordingly."
    It seems to me aesthetic obsession is a perfectly valid way of expressing this impulse and one that I much prefer to any actual religion, though I agree on aesthetics divorced from context. Of course much of modern art like much of ancient art is highly context dependent. The problem comes with sort of mindset that thinks the exchange and use-value of the art are separable things, that you can treat a piece of art like money, ignore the context, and not in the process destroy much of its aesthetic value. If they really thought the Banksy piece was holy and had even the vaguest idea of its contextual meaning they would have left it where it was. Of course being a museum, which are predicated on this sort of exchange value like abstraction from context maybe they can't help but be aesthetically 'philistine' (capitalist? bourgeois?). Makes the recent theft of art in France seem a little ironic. The going theory is that art makes useful and compact collateral in big drug deals? 'Hand over the Picasso I'll give you the smack', yeah.

  4. Dave it's a good point you make but I think of it a little differently. The introduction of exchange value doesn't destroy its aesthetic value but transforms it into something that is precious in a different way, since you can own it! Collecting is that you can possess a piece of god. It's kind of a great extension of capitalist logic when you think about it.

  5. Same thing here at the moment. The Foundry (quite a famous art space) is being torn down. They'll 'save' the Banksy's in the cellar, but the rest has to go.

    (Quite ironically, to make place for an 'art hotel'.)