Like me, you might like nothing better than to come across this news story in the real world, but unfortunately it is what Trump strategist Kellyanne Conway would probably call an alternative fact. Instead you might be interested to read the following, about the Banksy show which is on in Lisbon.
Banksy, genius or vandal? (Discuss)
This (without the Discuss) is what posters around Lisbon have been asking eagerly over the last couple of months, advertising the exhibition by the same name which is on at the Museu da Cordoaria . Happily the curators make no attempt to address this fatuous line of enquiry, or any other, but in nodding towards the idea of vandalism, the show raises one or two interesting questions.
In Portugal there is an awful lot of stuff spray-painted on public walls, from basic, dogged, repetitive tagging, to elaborate ADHD-type word-doodles, to the sort of villainous street ‘art’ commonly sponsored by local councils. We have a desperate example of the latter in Carcavelos, down by the market, which you might recognise as a type if I describe it. It depicts, among other hackneyed images straight from the psychedelic era, a sort of Native American sky-maiden girl (high cheek-bones, hippy-chick flowers in her hair), smiling gently and blowing something or other off the palm of her hand (perhaps the universe), flanked by a sort of Pacific-Island-looking girl (high cheek-bones, hippy-chick flowers in her hair), looking soulfully upwards at a convoluted tangle of bulbous, shiny-looking letters, so overwrought as to be indecipherable, and beyond those the huge blue face of a mermaidy sort of girl, with sparkling, anime-style eyes and tentacle-like hair (with no flowers in it). Beyond her a bloodlessly amputated but not very well-painted hand bears a bright blue dove with a keyhole in its breast (I’m not making this up), and there is also a herring-gull and a chimp with a shiny transistor radio (graffiteurs can’t get enough of shininess, once they have learnt to do it). And so on and so forth. You know the sort of stuff, it’s what is produced whenever public officials give money, support and carte blanche to skilled young spray-painters with plenty of time and no artistic sensibility.
The work exhibited in the Cordoaria’s Banksy show is nothing like that, and the reason for that, so goes the legend, is precisely because Banksy wasn’t given plenty of time. At the age of eighteen (the story goes), he was fed up with being interrupted and chased by the police, and one day was hiding from them under a dustman’s lorry when the stencils on it gave him the idea of using them in his own work, because stencils would allow him to take his time producing images, but work fast when applying them clandestinely. You are welcome to believe this tale if you like (it’s suspiciously like the sort of road-to-Damascus incident loyally peddled in revolutionary hagiographies) (and anyway why did Bristol dust-vans have stencils on their underside?) but it doesn’t matter either way. The result of his switching to stencilling has been the instantly recognisable global brand which is Banksy’s work as we all now know it: arty, clever, restrained in its use of detail and colour, visually witty, stylish, self-assured .
The catch is that the work gains so much of its power from the visual surprise of seeing these incongruously clean, classy images in their original context – in dirty streets, on warehouses, incorporating the door-steps and windowsills of terraced houses. So anybody curating a Banksy show seems to have a bit of a context issue. Banksy’s project is coherent, the thinking goes, precisely because it is clandestine: by being placed illegally in public places, the work is not only visually striking, but expresses its anti-establishment position through a non-establishment practice. Take the spray-painted lumps of brick and concrete out of this setting and stick them in a museum, and the images become just more artistic product to be consumed approvingly by the Artworld establishment. So any Banksy show misses the point a bit. Perhaps not many people are all that bothered about this, or what curators can do about it, but for the record what the Cordoaria ones have done is dim the lights, show a lot of videos and photos of the work in situ, fill the rest of the wall-space with screen-prints and a selection of Banksy’s epigrammatic sayings (he can be a bit of a smart-arse), and put on some rap-music. This worked well enough for me.
There has also been some fretting about what right people have to exhibit Banksy’s stuff without his authorisation (this show is no more authorised than the Brussels one last year or the Melbourne one in 2016.) But never fear. Writing on his website, Banksy says: “Members of the public should be aware there has been a recent spate of Banksy exhibitions, none of which are consensual. They’ve been organised entirely without the artist’s knowledge or involvement. Please treat them accordingly.” He then very likeably adds “Not sure I’m the best person to complain about people putting up pictures without getting permission.” Exactly, Banksy.
The show is at the Museu da Cordoaria until October 27th.