In 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: “I do not give a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.” Although he was speaking of the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance – and the subsequent racial issues surrounding that movement – his point is timeless.

Angela Cesere
Quite a nutshell, no?
Angela Cesere

Today’s media conveys information with the same liberty as any artist (don’t even think of pulling out the absurd “liberal media” falsehood), to the detriment of our nation and our world. News media are just lenses, rarely objective. And so history has shown us that sometimes we need artists to tow the line, to push the envelope of social awareness. Thirty years after De Bois’s essay would find the U.S.’s Cold War face-off with the U.S.S.R., and it was the groundbreaking accomplishments of artists working in New York City that caused the center of the elite, the artistic and the cultured to move from Paris to New York. The role of art as a player in the Cold War cannot be dismissed.

Art is undeniably a critical tool for change, be it local, national or international. It’s that “other” sphere of life, next to politics, economics and other engines of progress. But art has to mingle, doesn’t it? How else could it engage us? If there was no crossover between expression and reality, we might as well have one huge Street Art Fair – beautiful pots and clocks, but not a lot of dialogue – for the rest of our lives.

Enter Banksy, a British graffiti artist whose staggeringly ingenious art has slid under the radar in places ranging from London to Paris to Paris Hilton’s latest album. His stencils are undeniably his best work: little girls clutching bombs, Mona Lisas with bazookas, British blokes lawn bowling with cartoonish hand-bombs – Banksy’s patience, subtlety and tact are unmatched by any contemporary artist. “This is not a photo opportunity” briefly adorned a wall near a particularly scenic view of the Eiffel Tower. A police officer with a leashed dog frame the ominous “Stop me before I paint again.” And there’s my favorite: Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse holding hands with a young naked girl – after a moment you realize she’s from the infamous Vietnam War photo of refugees fleeing American napalm.

It just doesn’t hit harder than this. Banksy’s art could not be more relevant, more important. Marcel Duchamp had his urinal, Warhol his soup cans, but Banksy has the whole world. He deftly exploits the double-edge of our Information Age: the more information we have, the more it can be manipulated and the more it can just be ignored. His pieces on the barrier between Israel and its occupied territories will floor you. Whether it’s children painting picturesque scenes or a giant dotted line with a scissors implying “start cutting here,” the fact remains that we’re looking at a wall representing the worst conflict of our time, and only Banksy seems to have the ability to make art on it.

And it continues.

Here’s a guy who has walked into the Natural History Museum of London as well as the Louvre and put up pieces of his art, circumventing the entire process of selection. He doctored Paris Hilton’s album with nude photos. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his installations. At Australia’s Melbourne Zoo, Banksy dropped several cardboard signs into the Chimpanzee enclosure that read: “I’m a celebrity get me out of here” and “Help me no one will let me home.” A biohazard sign warning of radioactivity stood in the middle of the pond in St. James’s Park, with Buckingham Palace in the background, for 22 hours.

The act of writing a fine arts column about Banksy is ironic. Bansky’s effortlessly profound statements succeed on two levels: for popular culture and for the elite. With the elite, it’s insidious how he exploits art history. “The key to making great art is all in the composition” is a simple stencil, but the end of ‘composition’ is cute off by a door. “Britain’s Longest Painting (Allegedly)” starts with a stencil of an alarmed kitten wrapped up in a ball of bright orange yarn. The yarn follows a trail through many city blocks, ending with an appropriate, tongue-in-cheek stencil of a girl about to plug the yarn, now a plug, into an outlet. His pared-down approach makes all the right associations, from the Fluxus movement of the ’60s and ’70s to The Diggers of Haight-Ashbury.

No one is making art at this level. No one is engaging the public in such an overt, self-assured way. Banksy is single-handedly undermining the institution of fine arts as we know it, burning down our notions of expression and the relevancy of public art. Is one man capable of balancing the scales of information? That might be an unfair position. But Banksy is showing no signs of slowing down, and his prolific rat stencils will continue to play their fiddles while the rest of the world struggles to catch up.

– Klein can only hope to stencil half of what Banksy thinks. E-mail him at andresar@umich.edu

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