By Tom Sellar
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Many among the crowd that gathered around a patch of graffiti on the corner of a vacant, crumbling building in Tribeca earlier this month had no clue why they stopped to stare. They simply reckoned whatever was beyond the wall of people had to be worth seeing. A tourist toting a bulky digital camera nudged through to snap a photo. A young blonde in a stylish fall outfit stopped in her tracks. After a few minutes, she turned and asked an older woman lingering on the edge of the group: "What's everyone looking at?"
"An artist called Banksy put a spray painting here," the onlooker replied with a shrug. "I've never heard of him, but my kids have. Apparently people come from all over the world to see his things."
The piece attracting all the attention was a black silhouette of the old Manhattan skyline with an orange chrysanthemum in full bloom protruding from one of the Twin Towers like an explosion of color. In a museum, it would likely be a somber scene treated with humble reverence. Here, a mother had no qualms plopping her toddler beside it for a photo.
Similar scenes have unfolded across the city on a daily basis since October 1, when Banksy announced a monthlong "residency" on the streets of New York, titled "Better Out Than In." As the elusive street-art icon posts tongue-in-cheek "audio guides" and reveals the general location of new creations via his website, crowds rush to catch a glimpse before the works are defaced, erased, or relocated (the latter being the case for a pair of installations contained in trucks that roam the city, as well as a fiberglass Ronald McDonald sculpture making the rounds of New York's golden arches). The media churn out dozens of stories each day, speculating about the anonymous artist's true identity and chronicling every exploit. Not since Warhol teamed up with Basquiat has street-influenced art received this much attention.
Asked about his vision for "Better Out Than In" in an exclusive interview with the Village Voice earlier this month, Banksy replied, "There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. . . . It's pointless. Which hopefully means something."
What, then, is the meaning of "Better Out Than In"? What influence will it have, and how does it affect Banksy's legacy? The Voice reached out to several members of New York's street-art community to share their thoughts on the topic and received a broad range of responses. Some say Banksy is brilliant, one of the most important artists of our time. Others call his new work overrated and shallow.
"He's funny and clever, but what is that speaking to?" asks Marshall Weber, curator and director of collection development at the Brooklyn Artists Alliance. "It's almost like he's doing work about himself and his place in the art world, which is super-boring right now."
Weber is referring specifically to Banksy's October 12 stunt in Central Park. The artist rented a sidewalk booth and sold "authentic original signed Banksy canvases"—each worth thousands—for $60 apiece. New Yorkers had the opportunity to score the bargain of a lifetime, but because the sale was entirely unannounced, it was largely ignored. A video posted on his website puts the day's total take at $420.
"I thought it was the most amazing commentary on people buying art based on the brand name rather than what it looks like," says Molly Crabapple, whose May Day poster for Occupy Wall Street was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. "I thought it was astounding and completely clever. And, as somebody who has sold art on the street and had friends do it, I thought he did it in a very respectful way."
Dan Witz, a street art pioneer from Brooklyn whose work appears in Banksy's 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, appreciated the subversive art sale, too. "I think it's awesome, I think it's amazing, I think it's hilarious," Witz says. "I think it's definitely making a comment on the way street art isn't seditious anymore. I think it's fairly brilliant."
Brooklyn-based artists Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller, known collectively as FAILE, have collaborated on murals and street art projects around the globe and recently had an installation commissioned by the New York City Ballet. They've been impressed by the overall scope of "Better Out Than In."
"The premise for the show is brilliant," McNeil and Miller explain via e-mail. "The ability to use social media to broadcast a show on a global scale is remarkable. It's great to see the range from painted pieces to installation, video, and sculptural works. We also appreciate the art of spectacle and its use in creating the show."
"Better Out Than In" has veered between lighthearted (a stencil of a beaver in East New York strategically placed to make it look as though the critter had toppled a street sign) and dead serious. An elaborate piece painted on two dingy vehicles behind a chain-link fence on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side shows thrashing horses wearing night-vision goggles above a figure gazing upward and targeted by green crosshairs. The audio guide is an excerpt from the WikiLeaks video "Collateral Murder," which revealed a 2010 Baghdad air strike that killed journalists and civilians.
Some critics dislike the casual blend of whimsy and gravitas. Andrew Castrucci, co-founder of the Bullet Space urban arts collective, says other longtime New York street artists such as John Fekner, whose early work dealt with urban decay in the Bronx, are more deserving of praise.
"It's too literal, it's too easy—there's no mystery behind his work," Castrucci says of Banksy. "He's like the new hot stock. It's like the market: [The media] has created a bubble. I don't think his work is strong enough fetch that type of press. It's hype to me."
Weber agrees, expressing admiration and respect for Banksy while saying the artist is at risk of "becoming appropriated by the very pop culture he critiques."
"I'm kind of issuing a challenge to Banksy," Weber says. "When do you step into the real world? When does a piece of art change policy or catalyze social awareness or social action at this point? Again, I'd like to see him work on a topic that will raise some ruckus. The only reason I want more is because I know Banksy can deliver. He's a great artist."
TrustoCorp, an anonymous street artist (or perhaps a group) who creates satirical street signs, posted two pieces recently that skewer Banksy. One looks like a Citibank sign and reads, "Bad artists imitate, great artists get really rich." The other tweaks the Bank of America logo to read "Banksy of America," and imparts, "Laugh now but someday I'll be so rich I can do graffiti wherever I want."
Mayor Bloomberg isn't a fan. He said at an October 16 press conference that Banksy's stencils are "not my definition of art" and "should not be permitted." Quoting an anonymous source, the New York Post reported that the New York Police Department's Citywide Vandals Task Force is hunting the elusive artist, to which Banksy responded on his website, "I don't read what i [sic] believe in the papers." (The Daily News, predictably, refuted the story.)
Others bristle at classifying Banksy's work as graffiti. New York graffiti historian Sacha Jenkins says Banksy "has found a way to leverage the quote-unquote 'danger' associated with graffiti" for his own purposes.
"He's using social media and the media in general to promote his agenda, and he's using graffiti to make it more salacious," Jenkins says. "He has the posture of this supervillain who engulfs a city and no one knows where he'll strike next."
Banksy admirers dismiss the art semantics and emphasize the fact that his work is engaging audiences and sparking a dialogue about art and the nature of public spaces.
"We don't even really know what defines a 'graffiti artist' anymore, let alone a 'street artist,'" write McNeil and Miller. "Is it someone who spray-paints their name on a wall? Or is it someone that provokes people through the content they create in the public sphere?"
As for Banksy's legacy, several artists speculate that the magnitude of and public interest in "Better Out Than In" will force a generation of street artists to adapt and react, a phenomenon Witz calls "the Picasso syndrome."
"People try to take him down, but it's really hard to do after this," Witz says. "I respect him. I'm in a weird place, because I've been doing this for so long and I should resent him for being rich and famous. But I'm enjoying the hell out of it."