Banksy Makes Us Uncomfortable. That’s a Good Thing

Banksy pisses people off because they can’t tell who he is. Instead, they have to think and analyze and talk about him. About art.

The last piece created during Banksy’s month-long residency in New York City went up yesterday – an inflatable sign reading “BANKSY” overlooking the Long Island Expressway that imitates the bubble lettering common in graffiti.

Banksy posted an audio guide on his website explaining the piece in a way that underscores why his time in New York has been frustrating for a lot of residents: You can’t tell whether he’s being sincere about anything, including, even, his most insincere works.

The explanation plays on verbal irony: “I’d like to say we’re going out on a high note. And I guess in a way, we are” the clip says of the inflated tag, which was perched high above the street. “It's an homage of sorts to the most prevalent form of graffiti in the city that invented it for the modern era. Or, it's another Banksy piece that's full of hot air.”

But why can’t it be both? Banksy’s oeuvre contains complex layers of tongue-in-cheek tromp l’oeil in a variety of mediums to achieve a variety of ends. He used a simple, sans serif typeface to ream the New York Times for refusing to run his op-ed. He set up a stall in Central Park selling authentic Banksy pieces for $60 to comment on the art marketplace’s absurdity (they didn’t sell very well). He used recovered cinderblocks to make a replica Sphinx and not have any clear meaning at all.

And therein lies the mystery and the beauty of Banksy.

In a world where seemingly the full scope of human knowledge is at our fingertips, where the notion of the unknown (or unknowable) is increasingly quaint, Banksy presents a puzzle that cannot immediately be solved by a Google search.

Banksy pisses people off because they can’t tell who he is, what he is or even what he’s doing. Instead, they have to think and analyze and talk about him. About art.

Admittedly, the conversation isn’t always so lofty. Thursday, on the scene of Banksy’s last work, two men tried to steal the inflatable. They were arrested, and the piece was later confiscated by police who, according to reports, ingloriously stuffed the valuable display in the back of an NYPD van.

Even if the interlopers had succeeded, Banksy probably would have been pleased with the ending to his residency. After all, the chaos at that last “installation” represents the sort of anarchic art Banksy calls for in his closing manifesto, art that “can act as a public service, provoke debate, voice concerns, forge identities.

“The world we live in today is run, visually at least, by traffic signs, billboards, and planning committees. Is that it? Don't we want to live in a world made of art, not just decorated by it?”

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