“The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little. ~Banksy.
As someone who sometimes has trouble in malls and grocery stores because of what I can only begin to describe as a kind of semiotic agoraphobia, I have found a great deal to appreciate in the artistic devices and proclamations of the British artist known only as Banksy. His talent for revealing the links between graffiti and advertizing, what they imply about the public use of space, of symbols, of human attention, of the powers at play in the way these things are shaped, will no doubt make him stand out as one of our generations’ most notable contributions to art history.
I may be wrong here, but I’ve always felt that much modern art, despite the highly erudite and supposedly subversive messages contained within it, has had an overall conservative, reactionary, and culturally stagnating effect. This, while holding itself with the same smug sense of self-satisfaction, singed in the fires of righteous indignation, reserved for the avant-garde and radical. If you have to have the money, time and other support structures required to go to art school for four or more years just to have a positive emotional response to two blue stripes separated by a red one (i.e. Voice of Fire, by Barnett Newman), it’s probably not as radical as you suspect.
In the 1950s and 60s, the CIA covertly funded such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. This is not to say that the artists involved knew of, or would have approved of, this support, but only that abstract expressionism, and its equally abstract descendants, can and have also served conservatism and nationalistic propaganda.
It is important to keep in mind that things are never inherently radical or conservative though, that these are not properties essential to the work of art itself; they change overtime, from place to place and person to person. Yet it does seem that we live in a context were individuals frequently find themselves confronted with heavily restricted and shepherded hermeneutic resources, be they in the form of advertizements telling us how to interpret products or scientific and political developments, the import of which are fed to us through “talking head” commentators. Within this context art that requires artists to tell us how “high” art is to be appreciated and set apart from “low brow” art, or those things merely produced by illustrators, hardly seems to stand in contrast to the reactionary and conservative interests of the current age.
In the highly stylized yet realistic climate of soviet art, Voice of Fire would have been truly a revolutionary act and a powerful political commentary. Yet it made its first public appearance in America alongside an Apollo space capsule, red-and-white striped Apollo parachutes, photographs of the moon and images of movie stars.
I’ve commented in a previous post about the culture of advertizing and what I feel are some of its effects on the human psyche, and what can be done about it. In a much more immediate sense, on the ground and in the streets, I believe Banksy has shown how graffiti is another valuable player in the conductorless orchestra of semiotic resistance.
And for this, I am grateful.
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