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The art of Banksy: a (sharp) visual protest

“A society must assume that it is stable, but the Artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven” wrote the American novelist and social critic James Boldwin in a 1962 essay titled “The Creative Process”, where he analyses the vital responsibility, which artists have to their society. Banksy is definitely one of those artists who is able both to rend the curtain that hides the secrets of our contemporary times, and to snatch away the bandage that covers our eyes. In all his/her works, Banksy challenges the beholder by inserting disturbing elements into easily recognizable subjects, thus creating a “Verfremdungseffekt”.

Banksy, I Fought The Law, Screen Print on Paper, 70 × 70 cm, 2004

The Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect (first coined by the German dramatist-director Bertolt Brecht) involves the use of techniques designed to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play through jolting reminders of the artificiality of the theatrical performance. Even though the latter is a technique that belongs to performing arts, it can be used to describe the visual art of the anonymous British street artist. Let’s imagine all dynamics of our society, such as wars, consumerism or political powers, were a big and complex theater-play, and let’s imagine each citizen was sitting among the public, looking at the play; by disclosing and making obvious the manipulative contrivances and "fictive" qualities of the contemporary society, Banksy attempts to alienate the viewer from any passive acceptance and enjoyment of the play as mere "entertainment". Banksy uses the artworks to force viewers into a critical, analytical observation, and to help the viewer realize that what he is watching (or more correctly witnessing) is not necessarily an inviolable, incontrovertible or undeniable paradigm.

Just as Brecht saw his theater as a political mission instead of just a specific aesthetic program, so does the street artist see his/her art: Banksy’s works of art address the viewer with provocative narratives, where the unusual and bizarre elements stick out, in order to divert the beholder to take anything for granted.

Banksy, Applause, Screen print on paper , 76 x 114 cm, 2006

Exemplar of this strategy is Banksy’s 2006 “Applause”, where we see a plane, which is ready to take off from an aircraft carrier on the background, while one of the two attendants on the forefront is holding a sign where we can read the order to applause. Through this détournement Banksy lets us become aware of our role as viewer of that enormous dramatic prize contest that is war. It is ironic that the above-mentioned James Boldwin refers to the Artist as a “disturber of the peace”, if we think that war criticism is one of the central topics in Banksy’s art. Nevertheless this definition makes sense, if we think about how the apparent peace in which the western society lives in is only made possible through the fact that we have “modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history”. However difficult and terrifying it might be to stand in front of those lies and in this way acknowledge them for what they are, with Banksy’s graffiti we are forced to do so, since he wants us to wake up and to pull us out of the tepid water in which we risk to be slowly boiled alive, like the frog in the well-known fable. Admiting and facing the lies we tell to ourselves is a hurting yet necessary process, through which the Artist accompanies us. To use Baldwin’s words once more: “Societies never know it, but the war of an Artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real”.

Banksy, CND Soldiers, Screen Print, 50cm x 70cm, 2005

THE ART OF BANKSY. A Visual Protest MUDEC Museo delle Culturevia Tortona 56, CAP 20144 Milano Curated by : Gianni Mercurio 20/11/2018 – 14/04/2019 Vernissage: 20/11/2018 on invitation


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