Culture

‘The Art of Banksy’ Exhibition Says More About Banksy Than Banksy Ever Could

This is the perfect eulogy for Banksy's anti-establishment message.

The best angle I could come up with to cover Melbourne’s new Banksy exhibition was to break in and tag the place up. That’s what one of the hooded truth-speakers in his stencils would do. There’s no way they’d stand for some entrepreneur — Banky’s former manager Steve Lazarides, who hasn’t spoken to the artist in over a year — staging a show in Banksy’s name without his permission.

A Massive Unauthorised Banksy Exhibition Is On Its Way To Melbourne

Actually no, breaking in and tagging the place is too easy. This hooded warrior would probably sneak in, rip all the prints off the walls, load them into the show’s artfully vandalised Mini, jump start it, drive it through the barbed-wire fence into the rail yards then remount them in the subway.

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But I didn’t do any of that because I didn’t want to get arrested. And the fact you can get arrested for hijacking public space is the thing that makes street art subversive. You hang Banksy on a wall and it just highlights the fact that all the guy says (over and over again) is that war is bad, capitalism is problematic and pop culture is eating itself. Anyone can get behind those messages. They’re the art equivalent of a politician kissing a baby.

Same thing with ‘Dismaland’. It’s when Banksy does something risky to say something specific, like when he snuck along the West Bank Wall in 2005 and called Palestine a prison — that’s when he’s punk as hell.

So, in a way, staging this exhibition in a gallery pop-up/food truck park/brand activation is the perfect eulogy for Banksy’s anti-establishment message. It’s happening in an offshoot of Federation Square which is a commercial space masquerading as a public one.
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If you’ve ever been to a major demonstration in Melbourne you’d know that the marches often end outside Flinders Street station right next to Fed Square. Why wouldn’t we all gather next door where there’s a stage and a decent sound-system? Because you have to rent the place out. Melbourne doesn’t have any public squares that are suitable debate and dissent. It was gridded out by men who were terrified of the communist rumblings happening in Europe at the time.

Fast-forward to now and we’re paying $30 for the illusion of hijacked public space. It’s almost too perfect. So perfect you could call it ironic. And the thing about irony is that it resists criticism. It’s always in on the joke. You can call out Banksy for ripping off Warhol’s art = factory schtick but he’s already beaten you to it with his screen prints of Kate Moss done up to look like Marilyn (and you’re nothing but an art school snob for pointing that out in the first place).

You can call out Lazarides for profiting off Banksy’s anti-capitalist message but he’s preempted that already by hooking up a fake chandelier to illuminate a framed print of ‘Girl with a Heart Balloon’.

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In fact you can criticise the whole cynical enterprise of building a street art park opposite one of the city’s most highly-patrolled, virtually un-graffable areas. You can point out that the street art park is so unpopular with its own subculture that the locally commissioned work openly mocks the place.

You can ridicule the idea of installing an ‘Art of Banksy’ photo-op wall (where you can be anonymous, just like him). Or that they’ve fitted the space out in a London theme so flimsy it feels like a Mighty Boosh skit. Or that the prints and sculptures are legitimately way more powerful if just get out your phone and Google their original context. Or that they make you exit through an actual gift shop. But it doesn’t matter because Lazarides is right there with you every step of the way nudging and winking (probably hoping you’ll write a think piece about it).

And in the end that’s the most valuable lesson of ‘The Art of Banksy’: capitalism will always gobble up subversion and sell it back to the masses (with a side of hand-cut fries). But nothing can change the fact it costs zero dollars to rack paint from Mitre 10 and go deface a wall.

Sam West is writer of fiction and non-fiction. He’s contributed to Vice, i-D, The Lifted Brow and others. He also edits Three Thousand out of Melbourne.

The Art of Banksy exhibition runs from Friday until January 22 at The Paddock, near Federation Square.