A Critique of Capitalism: Banksy’s Street Art

Throughout his career, Banksy has explored and revisited his critique of capitalism and consumerism. In fact, this is the subject of several of his limited-edition prints: Trolleys, Barcodes, Sale Ends, and Christ with Shopping Bags, to name a few, which are widely utilized as symbols of materialism leading to the excesses of modern Western cultures on various media.

Figure 1. The Bansky artwork "Destroy Capitalism" [Image] - Guy Hepner
Figure 1. The Bansky artwork "Destroy Capitalism" [Image] - Guy Hepner

Banksy is gradually being regarded as the pinnacle of modern street art (Day, 2017). His ability to condense and ironically question a story or a style of thinking into an image has now created epigones all over the world. The success of his depictions is plain to see, in that particular familiar - a common object, the reuse of a famous portrayal, the inclusion of a public figure - which is decontextualized and inserted into a paradoxical, at times grotesque, situation that remains imprinted in memory and often leads to bitter reflections.


Banksy is a unique figure who prefers to stay unknown because he believes that his artistic vision should be unaffected by his identification. Many, however, are perplexed by the artist's distinctive trait, and have attempted to deduce his identity based on the geographical location of his artwork (Espana, 2020). It is fairly uncommon for street artists to choose to stay unidentified (Banksy, 2015). On the one side, it must be remembered that they frequently draw unlawfully on walls in order to create their artworks; on the other, however, they also exercise their own expressive freedom, of which the spontaneous and stuffy scene described is often permeated.


Figure 2. The Banksy artwork "Segregation wall" made in the West Bank wall. [Photo] - Banksy Explained
Figure 2. The Banksy artwork "Segregation wall" made in the West Bank wall. [Photo] - Banksy Explained

In the particular case of Banksy, there are many examples of this 100% non-art. In 2005, nine images were created along the Palestinian side of the West Bank, portraying young children admiring beautiful landscapes through holes. The artwork was created by combining traditional stencil techniques, producing trompe l'oeil postage stamp images, far from the tragic clashes that afflict that territory on a daily basis. In 2015, one of his works appeared on a wall in the Calais refugee camp: "The son of a Syrian migrant," in which it is easy to recognize Steve Jobs depicted as a fugitive. It is important, in this case, to draw attention to how short-sighted some European Union member states were when intending to handle the difficult situation of those fleeing a country that does not offer a future (Banksy, 2015). The supplies with which Banksy developed Dismaland, a provocative amusement park in which the attractions were of dubious taste, and where the reception personnel appeared gloomy to mock the festive hypocrisy of these places of leisure, appear to have been provided to the same migrants in Calais to take shelter.


Figure 3. A Banksy mural in Calais depicting lost at sea refugees [Photo] - Federica Panico
Figure 3. A Banksy mural in Calais depicting lost at sea refugees [Photo] - Federica Panico

Bansky has a unique technique of portraying modern society and condemning its negative sides: he organizes peaceful protests in all sites where social issues are so clear that they must be addressed. He protests by destroying his own works when they are exploited for profit, thus criticizing certain aspects of society, particularly capitalism. This was the situation at a 2018 London auction, where his most famous work, "The balloon girl," was sold for millions of pounds, but was promptly ruined by a shredder in the frame. Three orders of reasoning undoubtedly guided this action: the destruction of value, capitalist negation, and the genius of innovation (Frank, 2018).


Everything is inextricably linked to the artist's current state of mind. The destruction of value is a type of denial that moves in two directions at the same time; the first pertaining to artistic work. The cultural tradition, particularly in the West, acknowledges an inherent value in the work of art that transcends basic object attribution (Vessig, 2021). In reality, there is a large amount of content sedimentation in it, making it more than useful (Vessig, 2021). Eliminating art, then, entails destroying a worth that is largely cultural, creative, and open to a semantic realm that has yet to be explored. In that instance, the first sensation of embarrassment is directed at the annihilator's gesture.


The second, more thoroughly formulated, economic strategy is attached to this. The piece that was destroyed during the auction was beaten for a price that the vast majority of people on the planet cannot even imagine. As a result, it had genuine worth. It wasn't only a work of art. This second part is what captures the imagination. In a fraction of a second, a substantial sum of money was vaporized. As a form of just punishment, the true value, which is economic, physical, and monetizable, was not reset.


Figure 4. Banksy artwork "The girl with balloon" destroyed after Sotheby's auction in 2018 [Photo] - The Guardian
Figure 4. Banksy artwork "The girl with balloon" destroyed after Sotheby's auction in 2018 [Photo] - The Guardian

The anti-capitalist question is framed within this paradigm. The artist's decision to delete his artistic footprint is immediately read as a defiance of the commercial process that "bends" the artistic work to monetary quantification of value. Banksy decided to deceive the system. The mechanism follows the auction's instructions, and according to the regulations with which it is marked, it values its product as if it were for sale. Consider the case of a wealthy tycoon, for example, who decides to invest in opera. Hence, when the artistic worth is linked to the monetary value, Bansky decides to destroy both, punishing the consumer for returning the creative significance to monetization. What is punished in the reception, however, is not simply the individual purchase, but the entire capitalist system, which relies precisely on the reduction of all human-cultural worth to measurable value.


Banksy is known for his elusiveness, for attempting to emphasize the breaking points that define the realm of modern art from time to time, and for being regarded as an outsider capable of breaching the established rules (CollecDev, 2020). All of these characteristics, as well as economic trickery, are present in Sotheby's auction gesture, and that alone qualifies Banksy as a genius. He is a surprise genius, a genius who appears to bring the rules of the street and street art to the heart of the system, keeping in mind the possibility that, as when he makes pieces on public buildings, the work would exist at one point and then vanish. With the brilliance of recognizing the past as the destroyer of all existential guarantees, even those that come at a steep cost, Banksy is unquestionably one of the most intriguing figures in contemporary art. An artist who is able to 'play' with frequently asphyxiating rules more, and better, than others. His brilliance, as well as his willingness to fight against a system that, for many reasons, frequently proves to be bankrupt, is undeniable.


 

References

  • Banksy (2014). You Are an Acceptable Level of Threat, Carpet Bombing Culture.

  • Day, C. (2017) Saving Banksy, documentary

  • Espana, E. (2020) Banksy – The art of rebellion, documentary

  • CollecDev (2020, March 23). The art of Banksy: Capitalism vs. Culture. CollecDev | Official Website. https://collecdev.com/the-art-of-banksy-capitalism-vs-culture/

  • Frank, P. (2018, October 9). Banksy Wasn’t Critiquing Capitalism, He Was Taking Part In It. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/banksy-sothebys-shred-art-capitalism_n_5bbb874be4b0876edaa07478

  • Graffiti, Consumerism and Capitalism. (2021, July 5). Banksy Explained. https://banksyexplained.com/issue/graffiti-consumerism-and-capitalism/

  • Vassigh, A. (2021, November 17). Banksy And The Indestructible Force Of Capitalism. Worldcrunch. https://worldcrunch.com/culture-society/banksy-and-the-indestructible-force-of-capitalism

Image references

  • Figure 1. The Bansky artwork "Destroy Capitalism" [Image] - Guy Hepner. https://www.guyhepner.com/product/festival-destroy-capitalism-by-banksy/

  • Figure 2. The Banksy artwork "Segregation wall" made in the West Bank wall. [Photo] - Banksy Explained. https://banksyexplained.com/the-segregation-wall-palestine-2005/

  • Figure 3. A Banksy mural in Calais depicting lost at sea refugees [Photo] - Federica Panico

  • Figure 4. Banksy artwork "The girl with balloon" destroyed after Sotheby's auction in 2018 [Photo] - The Guardian

Author Photo

Federica Panico

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