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 December 5, 2013.   0 Comment

 It has been a perfect tempest in a teapot, the distracting, frothy combination of art, money, celebrity and urban exploit that Banksy has brought to New York. This British graffiti artist, purported millionaire, activist, filmmaker and prankster spent the last month roaming the city, perpetuating what is — depending upon your point of view — street art, political resistance or vandalism.

As he did his thing, the federal government shut down and reopened, the N.S.A. spying scandal spread, and the Affordable Care Act limped into action. What better way to forget your troubles and get happy? 

It began on Oct. 1 when Banksy's website announced a monthlong “artist’s residency” titled “Better Out Than In.” (The phrase may seem to elevate the streets and the outsider artist above insiders and their pristine galleries, but it is also a crude British version of “gesundheit,” except for expulsions other than sneezes.) The website said that each day of October, Banksy would unveil a work somewhere in the five boroughs and announce its location online. The works would vary among “elaborate graffiti, large scale street sculpture, video, installation and substandard performance art,” according to an email from a representative of Banksy to The Village Voice.

Banksy madness ensued, on the street and even more in the media, as if October were, somehow, a slow news month. It didn’t hurt that Banksy is one of the few graffiti artists whose work has been successfully monetized — with high prices paid at auction for prints and occasional paintings, as well as for pieces of Banksy-limned walls.

In addition, he seems to have a kind of genius for self-promotion. His anonymity, his anti-establishment views, his terse quotations all contribute to the Banksy mystique and brand.

The project attracted scores of devoted fans intend on a glimpse of their hero or his work, people seeking new selfie ops and those intrigued by the prospect of seeing someone luck in to some money. It was Zorro meets Kilroy meets Lotto. 

It has also resembled an extended joke on the art world: a widely fair art played out in fits and starts.

Banksy seemed to conduct a kind of social experiment, using the city as a rat maze into which he dropped different kinds of bait to see how New Yorkers would react. We saw paranoia, greed and competitiveness as well as camaraderie, flash-mob-like fun and sincere or cash-driven reverence. People who had barely heard of Banksy until one of his works turned up on their buildings were suddenly hiring guards or covering them with plexiglass or roll-down gates. Some graffiti pieces lasted less than two hours before they went the way of all graffiti, and much else, quickly sinking beneath the restless surface of the city. 

But what of these works as art? They have been decidedly uneven, running such a gamut of contemporary genres that Banksy began to feel like a collective. His October offerings have had a made-by-committee variety, full of adman jokes and sight gags that emphasize a clear punch line over visual style. Banksy is no Keith Haring, and he isn’t Rev's either. And the copywriters of the ads for Manhattan Mini Storage are often funnier.

Banksy is best known for stenciled images on walls, with or without words.  Nearly half of the works in “Better Out Than In” used this technique, with results that were steeped in genteel nostalgia. Their contrasting gray tones and touches of color had a louche 1940s or ’50s aura — for example the slouchy, Sinatra-like man in a suit with a loosened tie, holding wilted flowers that appeared on the roll-down gate of the Hustler Club.


Those involving stark black silhouettes seemed to reach back even further to the images of the Eight, the painters who first portrayed New York street life a century ago, or Norman Rockwell, who sentimentalized their style.

The silhouette stencils sometimes evinced a witty sense of site specificity. One, near the northeast corner of West 79th Street and Broadway, depicts a boy hoisting a big mallet next to a New York standpipe connected to a fire alarm about 10 feet up the wall, creating a hammer-bell strength-test scene. (At the moment, the work is protected by plexiglass.) Similarly clever is the silhouetted pair of geishas that turns a bricked-up arch on a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, into a high-backed bridge.

There have been moments of juvenile bad taste, like a video shot on Staten Island that showed a busy anthill converted into a woman’s vulva with the addition of two curvy torsolike lines. It gives “Better Out Than In” a creepy misogynist twist.

And in at least one instance of mocking the audience, a Banksy proxy set up a stand in Central Park stacked with stenciled Banksy canvases. But without the name in evidence, only a few sold, suggesting that the Banksy allure has little to do with what his art looks like.

The strongest works were not graffiti at all. A sphinx built out of rubble in Queens looked great online, like a spectral sculpture by Huma Bhabha.

The standout of the series — and by far the most political — was “The Sirens of the Lambs,” a truck with cute automaton heads of sheep and cows poking through the slats, making alarmed noises on their way to slaughter. It was both funny and wrenching, something out of Wallace & Gromit that might convert children viewing it to a lifetime of vegetarianism.

Banksy’s automaton skills were also evident in the otherwise pointless “Reaper,” a piece consisting of a skeleton driving a glittery bumper car around a tiny concrete slab to blaring music at Houston and Elizabeth Streets for three nights last weekend. It was a work of endurance art, but mainly for neighborhood residents, who complained to the police and on Twitter.

Tuesday’s Banksy seemed designed to demonstrate both his charitable instincts and his dollar value. “The Banality of the Banality of Evil,” is a saccharine Kinkade-esque landscape to which Banksy added a man in Nazi uniform, seen from behind gazing off into the distance, à la Caspar David Friedrich, and his signature under the name of the original artist, K. Sager. It was dropped off anonymously at a Housing Works Thrift Shop on East 23rd Street in the morning and was soon on display in the window.

It is now the focus of an online auction to end Thursday night. The starting price was $76,000. By Wednesday afternoon, bidding had topped $220,000. All proceeds of the sale will go to Housing Works, an organization dedicated, as its website says to “fighting to end AIDS and homelessness.”

Banksy - 'The Banality of the Banality of Evil'


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