Review: The Art of Banksy Exhibit Shows the Artist as Anti-Capitalist Punster and King of the Mashup

“Nobody ever listened to me until they didn’t know who I was,” says anonymous graffiti artist Banksy. We think. That quote is included in the new The Art of Banksy exhibit at 360 N. State St., now open through October 31, including 80 works from private collectors around the world. The artist was likely born in Bristol, UK, and his outdoor freehand graffiti tags started appearing in the early 1990s, becoming stencils later that decade. The exhibit is made up of large framed prints, most with informative legend cards, arranged in a thematic way. Larger visual exhibits provide information on Banksy’s life (as much as is known of it) and his techniques. Videos in several locations feature interviews with his printer—the man who produces Banksy’s screen prints. Banksy created several notable site-specific installations, such as 2008’s Cans Festival, held in a former Eurostar train tunnel. He invited other graffers or graffiti artists to participate, as long as they didn’t paint over others’ works. He built a dystopian Disneyland called Dismaland in secret, at an old outdoor swimming pool, which opened in 2015, ran for 36 days, and attracted 150,000 visitors. In 2017, he created the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, 100 years after Britain took control of Palestine. He’s designed Blur album covers and Greenpeace protest posters featuring Jungle Book characters marooned in a deforested landscape, all of which are represented in this exhibit, which covers 45,000 square feet and includes an optional audio guide (given in British English, as is the signage). Between 2003 and 2005, Banksy infiltrated galleries in the Tate, National History and British Museums in his home country, as well as Paris’s Louvre, installing his own work and signage to hang among the masterpieces for several days before they were discovered. He also replaced Paris Hilton’s CD with his own version in another stunt. But Banksy is probably best known for his outdoor spray-painted art, which randomly pops up in major Western cities. He frequently draws rodents, saying “If you feel dirty, insignificant, or unloved, then rats are a good role model. They exist without permission, they have no respect for the hierarchy of society and they have sex 50 times a day.” He also remarks on the relative ease and low cost of his work: “A regular 400ml can of paint will give you up to 50 A4 sized stencils. This means you can become incredibly famous/unpopular in a small town virtually overnight for approximately ten pounds.” Banksy is a punster and king of the mashup, placing capitalist cultural icons in oxymoronic, usually violent, situations, as shown in representative pieces throughout the exhibition:
  • Troops raising the flag on Iwo Jima pose on an abandoned car
  • A Van Gogh featuring dead sunflowers
  • Monet’s Giverny with shopping carts in the drink
  • Hopper’s “Nighthawks” with an anteater outside the diner window
  • Warhol-esque soup cans
  • Two grannies (not unlike your co-reviewers) knitting sweaters saying “Punk’s Not Dead” and “Thug for Life”
  • Punk rockers lined up to buy “Destroy Capitalism” t-shirts
  • Winston Churchill with a green mohawk
  • The Smiley Face Grim Reaper
  • A police officer searches Dorothy Gale’s basket while Toto watches
  • Instead of listening to “His Master’s Voice,” the RCA dog is holding a bazooka
  • Jesus, arms outstretched on the cross, holds shopping bags, as a kind of capitalist Christ or a new logo for prosperity gospel practitioners
Banksy is annoyed/annoying but hilarious, not taking his celebrity too seriously. His “Girl With Balloon” was famously shredded after being sold for 1 million pounds at auction. His 2010 film “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is referenced at the end of this winding exhibit, when viewers must, well, exit through the gift shop. Another of his quotes says, “The art world is the biggest joke going. It’s a rest home for the overprivileged, the pretentious, and the weak,” echoing the 2018 documentary “The Price of Everything,” a stark take on how consumerism is skewing the fine art market. (The Price of Everything is available on HBO Max.) His tight, focused and excellently executed screen prints that originally sold for 35 pounds are now worth 35,000 pounds. One of those prints in this collection shows an art auction with the statement: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” Why is Banksy anonymous and why does he take such great care to be invisible? It’s commonplace for street artists to create their street art (on permission and non-permission spaces) under creative nom-de-plumes. But they usually are willing to be identified. The legend cards in the show tell us that Banksy often donates proceeds of art sales to charities he supports, but he also has certainly made money on the sale of his art. For an overview of Banksy’s art pricing and the economics of the art market, see this article in Artspace. The Art of Banksy is publicized as unauthorized, which would be unthinkable for other living artists. Even if the artist isn’t directly involved, the artist’s agent or gallery would be involved in the curation and collection of the works in the exhibit. This exhibit is produced by Starvox Exhibits, a new division of Starvox Entertainment, which specializes in art as entertainment. They’re the people who brought Chicago and dozens of other cities the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit, which is made up of videos, projections and virtual reality, but no actual original art. They call it “experiential art.” Starvox’s live theater properties include “Evil Dead: The Musical,” the Harry Potter parody “Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience” and many others. The reason you know it's not really art is that they have dozens of iterations of the same show (both Banksy and Van Gogh) running at the same time in different cities. An Indianapolis art critic said the Van Gogh exhibit is "to art what an amusement park Laser Floyd show is to an actual Pink Floyd concert." Our view is that real art exists in real space, can be exhibited in one place at one time, and has to be packed up and shipped at great expense. At least the Banksy exhibit is thoughtfully curated with art prints framed and exhibited with informative legend cards. The Art of Banksy runs through October 31 at 360 N. State St. Tickets are $40 to $100. Nancy S. Bishop also contributed to this review. Images courtesy of Starvox Exhibits. Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Or you could make a monthly pledge to our Patreon account. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 
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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.