I shared a piece of art criticism on Facebook recently. Unsurprisingly I got no comments. The pictures of kids or “kids say the darndest things” are guaranteed to get a few likes. Political stories or religious pieces usually get a few comments. This one, which wasn’t just signaling or positioning, but had the depth to cause thought, vanished without a blip.
The artist in question is Banksy. To many he might not be an artist but a simple public nuisance. He paints using spray paint and stencils on public walls. Recently he came to NYC for a month long “residency” cheekily making fun of various artist-in-residence programs around the country. The nearby picture is one of those works. The child picking her nose as lady liberty is yes juvenile but a catchy riff for an Englishman in New York. A couple of other works from this residency are nearby with that same just fun to be here zing. The second one to the right shows that Banksy got a full NY welcome as competing NY taggers took to commenting somewhat less completely on the work.
Now if all Banksy did was work such as those he’d be a funny defacer of property. One of those guys you’d feel bad about locking up, but glad that it’s over. But Banksy also does work like this to the left. And it is work like this which caused the piece that I shared on facebook. Because it is the idle rich of NYC that have time and care to chase Banksy work around the city before it is defaced or protected by someone even richer. And that is what the piece that I shared pondered. Banksy admits he is a failure. His work, originally a form of protest or a shout from the lower depths that we are still here and watching, has become popular. Rich people buy the buildings he’s painted on and hire 24 hr security until they can destroy the building to save the canvass. And he will occasionally make pieces available in galleries for handsome commissions. The picture of Mickey, Ronald and Napalm Girl nearby is an example. Again you can pick up relatively effortlessly on the theme of privilege and trivialization. This one has renewed meaning of how un-serious a people we have become. In those days of division and protest an image like the naked girl running from Napalm could prick the American conscience. Recently a Pakistani family testified about Grandma killed as collateral damage of a drone strike. This strike occurred the day before the Eid – say the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney would respond that drones strikes are better than the alternative, which is undoubtedly true. The problem is that they are guided by intelligence. Is that grandma, or a terrorist meeting? Ask the intelligence analyst. What, he’s on vacation at Disney land? And once ordered, there are no humans on the ground to see the truth, or to call it off when the intelligence is wrong. And how often is our intelligence wrong? And this goes on in our names while we go to Disney and eat Happy Meals. Because Banksy now makes his living from selling to the very people who encourage these things, can he really critique them? Or is he a failure, a parasite on the very things he is commenting on? He doesn’t mean it. It is just prophecy as chic hucksterism. Like the boy spray-painting ghetto being watched by Jeeves holding his cans on the silver platter.
Banksy gets this, and he gets the deeper law-gospel vein that he is working in. As part of an interview granted the NY Times he comments – “There is no way around it – commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist…it is like the ancient Kings of Israel inviting a prophet to a royal dinner, Yes, come eat dinner with us and say more about this law-breaking thing and how God’s going to judge us – my guests from the next kingdom over will get a total kick out of it.” If all he was busking was the law, he’d be a hypocrite. And he knows it. “I’m a failure”. Which under the law, we are all failures. But Banksy did something else during his residency. He set up a pop-up booth in Central Park and started selling prints. What he was offering was original Banksy signed works. Works that would go for a minimum of $30,000 each in a gallery. After this they would probably go for much more. The price he put on them at the stall? $60. He released a video of each purchase including one of a mother bargaining him down to $30 to decorate her son’s bedroom. All day in central park and he made three sales. After the completion of each sale, he asks each purchaser – all who are oblivious of the hidden treasure just bought – if he can hug them.
Like this is the Kingdom of God. Finding a treasurer buried in the field, a pearl of great price under-priced at the flea market. It is hidden in plain sight. It is given away. The rich and powerful, the violent always try and bear it away, but it always upset their order. False prophets come and try and over-write it, but it just grows again. Because the Kingdom is grace. It is the hug of the Father who is just happy for you that you are alive. The owner who pays the same regardless of the work performed – regardless of your merit or lack – regardless of your cool or loser-dom. Would that we could all be such failures.