Banksy is a graffiti artist who has been given a lot of attention lately, and he has emerged as a very controversial figure. Some consider him one of the most important contemporary artists, while others think of him as nothing more than a vandal. The anonymous man specializes in using stencils to make his graffiti, and his works have appeared across the world, in such places as the London Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History. Banksy’s graffiti is known for being satirical and politically charged, and I think that leaves him, and his work, ripe for interpretation, and I am making the case that Banksy, both through his act of creating graffiti and through interpreting his graffiti itself, can be easily interpreted as a classic liberal. To start off with an introduction to who Banksy is and what he does, I recommend this trailer to a documentary made about/by him:
(I would also like to point out that I think this post shares a lot in common with a15haddad’s post on Lobster C***, which tackles the political implications of vandalism, but on a much more local level. (http://polsci307.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/lobster-c-and-civic-republicanism/#comments) So I suggest you check it out. And it’s pretty funny, too.)
I instantly think Banksy should be considered a classic liberal because I think the act of graffitiing is intrinsically liberal. It is important to note that under just about any government, graffiti is considered vandalism, and by breaking the law, Banksy is refusing adherence to a common law. He is not really concerned with general welfare or if the owners of the property on which he graffitis actually appreciate his work. He acts first and foremost independently of others and the laws they have agreed upon.
The graffiti itself also exhibits some very liberal themes, and I’d like to look at a couple of them.
The focus of this piece of graffiti is on the police officer’s “attack dog,” and Banksy continues a recurring theme of mocking the police in his work. By using something as goofy and useless as a balloon animal in place of an actual attack dog, he brings a really playful and childish mood to an image that usually exhibits power and authority. The subversive tactic of this piece, to me, suggests that Banksy finds authority to be airy (pardon the pun) and ungrounded. This goes hand in hand with the liberalism previously identified in Banksy’s breaking of the law. He seems to have some real disagreement with law and authority, and I think that fits with the independent themes of liberalism.
In this piece, Banksy again introduces stark irony to a classic image, but this time he twists an image of national identity. By taking the famous, patriotic image of the flag at Iwo Jima (the most reproduced photograph of all time) and replacing soldiers with what seem to be mischievous, urban youths, Banksy tries shatter overly idealistic patriotism with grim reality. It appears that he is again attacking the civic republicanism ideal of common ground. Benedict Anderson famously called a nation “an imagined community,” and I think that is very much at play here. The imagined common ground among people of the same nation includes such patriotic images like the flag at Iwo Jima, but through subverting it with much darker themes, Banksy attempts to bring emphasis to the fact that a nation is an imagined community and that what people in a nation believe to have in common is very much fake.
It is very hard to identify much motive or coherent principle in an anonymous artist like Banksy, whose primary goal seems to be to subvert and toy with people’s understandings of classic images. His work could very much amount to nothing more than meaningless irony and vandalism, but I think through his extreme independence as a graffiti artist and through his continued rejection of authority and the notion of common ground, he can definitely be identified as a classic liberal.