Banksy: Hack or Genius?

In 2018, a painting was sold at Sotheby’s auction. As soon as the sale was official, the painting began to move; as viewers looked on in shock, the painting’s frame shredded the artwork and left a pile of scraps on the floor. Who was responsible for this bold stunt? Well, no one really knows. The artist only refers to “himself” as Banksy.

I say “himself” because Banksy has been most often characterized as male, but even that point is disputed. In 2014, City Labs published an article called “Why Banksy is (Probably) a Woman” while others have claimed that Banksy is not one person, but a group. Whoever Banksy may be, it is clear that controversy has surrounded the artist since his emergence onto the art scene.

His works began to appear on the buildings of Bristol, England about twenty years ago, and initially, they were signed “Robin Banx.” As the artist solidified his identity, he started going by the shortened “Banksy” and developed his distinctive stencil graffiti technique. However, while his confidence grew, so did the number of eyes on him. Much of the public loved Banksy, and spotting his works became an exciting treasure hunt. Meanwhile, the authorities were not so complimentary.

Thus, Banksy found it necessary to remain anonymous. It hid him from the cops and (bonus!) created an air of mysterious intrigue around his work. From there, the street artist had the freedom to go bigger and bolder.

He began hanging satirical pieces in famed art museums like the Met and the Louvre. He held underground gallery openings which featured live animals. In his biggest stunt up to that point, he travelled to Israel and painted on the West Bank barrier, which was erected as part of the effort to keep out suicide bombers. Smithsonian Magazine calls his artwork there “poignant meditations on the theme of escape.”

After that, his graffiti, paintings and sculptures demanded the attention of the international art scene. His works are frequently anti-establishment, always some form of protest or statement. He has commented on pollution, poverty, violence, cultural appropriation and power dynamics. As his fame increases, art critics speculate how close he can remain to his roots in the subculture.

Thus, the crucial question of Banksy’s career is not whether or not he deserves to be famous. No matter how you feel about his artwork, it is undeniable that he has been effective in highlighting a plethora of social issues and garnering an enormous fanbase. The question now is what will a gritty, underground artist like Banksy do in his spotlight of fame?

-Cari Hurley ’20

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