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Bad Banksy, Good Banksy

Writing on the Wall's guest editorial series has another visit from G. James Daichendt, art critic, art historian, and Professor of Art History at Azusa Pacific University in southern California. As author of "Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art" and the forthcoming "Shepard Fairey Inc.: Professional/Artist/Vandal," Daichendt is also a witness to street art's relationship to public space and within galleries, and takes umbrage to some of the responses to Banksy's current work in New York. He subtitles this commentary as "Banksy Circus Has New York Jumping Out of Small Cars and Running in Circles."


By G. James Daichendt

The ironically titled artist residency "Better Out Than In" by famed UK street artist Banksy has taken New York and the social media world by storm this October.

However, not all are happy with the subversive tactics, including art critic Jerry Saltz. The outspoken and brash writer, known for his stance against blue chip galleries and mega art fairs, takes aim at Banksy's recent work in New York Magazine, calling him a "brand" and an "easy access photorealist." An unfair accusation -- Banksy's accessibility is completely missed by the "critic of the people" because it's what makes him relevant and compelling as an artist.

Here in Los Angeles, we have witnessed a Renaissance in street art, graffiti, and murals as of late, and Banksy's message is important for understanding this larger movement. Saltz's New York-centric worldview sadly misses the point. What New York is questioning would be welcomed in Los Angeles, as the West Coast has a sense of humor and irony of ourselves, including an awareness of our celebrity culture.

Despite the brash generalizations by the esteemed critic, I believe we are witnessing something special this month. An artist has completely bypassed the traditional art world to great success. While he is not a saint (far from it), the approachability and excitement generated from Banksy's antics is sorely missing in the professional art world.

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We know it's art without the need for gallery context, and indicative of a larger movement of artists who reach beyond the cultural elite that practice an unusual amount of group think these days. A good example of empty hype was the publicity around Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass," an installation that generated a lot of attention outside the mainstream art world. However, the downfall was that the coverage of the piece focused on the extraordinary journey of the massive rock from the Riverside area to LACMA that involved engineering heroics. In the end, little was said about the piece itself. Like the Space Shuttle Endeavour's tow through L.A., it was an impressive sight, but art should do more than raise our eyebrows.

Banksy's promotion is minimal by comparison. A few prompts online, and the digital echo takes over. Even labeling this month as a "residency" pokes at the art establishment and the importance of language to support our craft.

To say that Banksy's art is uninteresting is lazy and old fashioned. The series of installations, performances, videos, and street works that he continues to orchestrate -- one a day for the month of October -- goes beyond one-liners. In fact, he critiques the very foundation on which it stands, with an ironic audio guide that you can call for a walk-by interpretation. What could be more alt-postmodern?

Saltz writes that Banksy "...tweaks typical pointy-headed art-world appropriation art, mixes it with edginess, and brings it to the street, all with jokey wry political Pop commentary and a cheeky masked-man renegade anonymity." Since when is edginess and humor negative? It's these qualities that provoke interest initially. His anonymity heightens intrigue in the work and the digital realm furthers the conversation with his audience.

The attention from news outlets, social media, and those onlookers obsessed with their "selfies with a Banksy" comments on the aesthetic development of our audience. Capturing their attention, and Saltz's, is the achievement. Saltz's criticism on news coverage is better aimed here. With little to no research, a Today Show correspondent shamelessly asks pedestrians: "Do you know where Banksy is?" which does little to further an intelligent or meaningful dialogue about art. But I don't expect much from sources that hype celebrities like Jay-Z each morning.

As the month continues, we learn a bit more about the depth and range of Banksy. Individually they may seem simple, but combined they start to tell a larger story. The many examples of Banksy's work removed from public walls, or attempts to charge visitors for photographs, displays the value we place on hype and celebrity. Banksy quickly turned the tables a few days later by offering his work for $60 a piece in central park. There were only a few takers, a good lesson for all involved, the joke was on us, and certainly muddled the waters on the perceived value of art and the inflation of the art market.

When Saltz inaccurately labeled street art as graffiti, through a bizarre and outdated formula, it broke the camel's back. The difference between graffiti and street art is even more apparent from Banksy's residency.

Graffiti writers in NYC know there is a difference. They have not been kind, often destroying Banksy's work within a few hours. Disappointed Banksy fans are confused and not aware of the selfish act of graffiti and attention these folks desire. Whether its one upping, protecting their neighborhood, seeking fame, or for the rush -- the democracy of the streets is in full effect. It's a drama that unfolds daily.

Accessibility is why Banksy's art is compelling. We know it's relevant the moment we see it. His stature allows him to exist inside and outside the mainstream art world and the subcultures of graffiti and street art. We can find great depth within; but we also over-analyze and need to simply enjoy it as well. It's a special month in New York, and critics like Saltz may want to take in some art history that's actually making an impact on culture.

Photo credit: @ryanjleone (Ryan Leone)

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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