[Banksy Does New York is currently available on HBO GO. It will broadcast on HBO on November 17th]
Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was my favorite film of 2010. Banksy is one of the most popular artists in the world, but as his documentary showed, he’s more fascinated with the reaction art engenders rather than the art itself. Although he had no direct involvement with Chris Moukarbel‘s documentary Banksy Does New York, the film feels like the ultimate culmination of Banksy’s goal with his October 2013 open exhibition in New York City. Moukarbel’s film collects social media reaction to Banksy’s daily art projects, and then builds on these reactions to also include explorations of Banksy’s affect on the art scene, who owns street art, the privatization of public space, and more. Although the movie occasionally carries an undertone of unquestioning reverence for Banksy, Banksy Does New York is still a surprisingly excellent response that uses the artist’s NYC project as a way to open up a larger conversation about consuming art.
In October 2013, Banksy had a “residency” in New York City. Every day there would be a new art project. He would only send out an image of it on his website, and then it was up to resourceful fans to find the work before it was possibly defaced or erased. Those who found the piece would then inevitably post it across social media. From there, Moukarbel expands the documentary to examine how Banksy’s residency affected everything from his relationship to the art establishment to working class people trying to make a quick buck on reselling his work. To quote Moukarbel’s opening title card for the picture, “The following film was not created by Banksy. It is a reflection of what New Yorkers experienced that month. Their response became part of the work itself.”
I contend that their response is the work itself. There’s a bit of Banksy worship on display, but to Moukarbel’s credit, he does speak with an art critic who says Banksy’s work lacks nuance. And he’s absolutely right. Banksy is a populist and almost all of his work is mocking authoritarianism without engaging in any fervent emotional response. It’s why you can find a coffee table book of his work at an Urban Outfitters. The pieces themselves elicit a smirk and an approving nod, but no one’s going to fight The Man. Street art is inherently rebellious, but the wide-spread reaction to the art is where it gets interesting.
Street art is in the public space, and therefore removed from the traditional modes of officially sanctioned pieces. It wasn’t curated for a gallery or commissioned for a wall. It was done in secrecy and left behind for public consumption. It belongs to the people, and Banksy appears fascinated by how those people will react. He approached that subject with Exit Through the Gift Shop, and then had this October 2013 residency function as a similar topic filtered through a different mode of distribution. Because his artwork doesn’t really require careful consideration, it’s no surprise that people were in a rush to say they were there rather than stop, pause, and carefully puzzle over the piece. You don’t drink in a Banksy; you react to it. Moukarbel does talk to critics who discuss the artwork, but really it’s about seeing people outside the artistic community become a part of the piece. When Banksy spray-pained a heart-shaped balloon flying away, he wanted people to stand in the photo.
So what does that say about the consumption of art? Is it just an attraction, and our vanity requires us to let everyone know we were there? If putting us into a photo makes us part of the piece, then how does it affect the meaning? A little girl “holding” that balloon is different than an old man holding it. Banksy also seems to require his audience to participate not only in terms of social media, but in giving the art its meaning. As one critic points out regarding his “Calm” piece—an open moving truck with a peaceful diorama running in the back—the mob surrounding the truck created juxtaposition between the artwork and audience. It’s a piece that could only be done on the streets, which makes the streets more than just a viewing space.
Moukarbel does a terrific job of following the little threads inspired by what Banksy is encouraging in terms of viewing the viewer. A portion of Banksy’s work is a direct rebuke to the art establishment and how they work as gatekeepers. But then Moukarbel turns around and shows that this establishment is still happy to pull Banksy’s work off the street and auction it for hundreds of thousands of dollars. This returns us to a question Banksy asked in Exit Through the Gift Shop: Who owns his art? The prestige of an art gallery approximates the prestige of the work. But outside of a gallery, it can be worth nothing to a store owner who paints over the piece or everything to an owner who knows the work’s financial value. Is it a gift to the owner or is it a gift to the people? The work has been set free in the wild, and it’s up to the nearest individual to decide.
Banksy Does New York provides an incredibly rich, thoughtful dialogue crammed into the documentary’s relatively brief runtime. The only way the movie could be more in the spirit of the residency would be to release it on YouTube for free rather than put it on HBO, a premium channel. But Banksy consciously left dissemination to his audience. They became both artist and the art. The many questions raised by Banksy Does New York will spur both discussion and deep consideration long after the Instagrams and tweets have been forgotten and the pieces painted over or sold to the highest bidder.