My nominee for the 2012 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award differs from past nominees. He is not an inventor, like Earle Haas, Debrilla M. Ratchford, Stan Honey, Ralph Teetor, or Marion Donovan and Victor Mills. Nor is he an entrepreneur or businessperson,like Steve Wynn, David Einhorn, Herbert Dow, Steve Henson, or Mary Quant . I don’t even think you could classify him as a political activist or thinker, like Charles Montesquieu, Wim Nottroth, or Fasi Zaka.
My nominee is the graffiti artist known as Banksy. How, you may ask, does a graffiti artist improve the human condition? Banksy does so by beautifying public spaces, promoting free speech and liberty, and by engaging in incisive social criticism.
Since Banksy’s identity is not public, there is some confusion and uncertainty about what can really be attributed to him. We know that he made the movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which you can watch in its entirety on Youtube pasted at the top of this post. The movie begins as a documentary about a thrift-shop owner in Los Angeles, Thierry Guetta, who follows graffiti artists with a camera. He then decides to become a graffiti artist himself under the name, Mr. Brainwash. At around that point Banksy assumes control of the documentary because of Guetta’s inability to edit or make a coherent narrative out of the countless hours of footage he has recorded. We then see Guetta as Mr. Brainwash successfully imitating the styles of other graffiti artists, supervising a factory of workers creating graffiti-like art, and hosting a phenomenally successful and lucrative show in Los Angeles where his art is featured and sold.
The film raises excellent questions about what is really art, the role of commerce in art, and the distinction between incorporating other people’s work and stealing it. The movie was nominated for the best documentary Oscar, but there have been some disputes about whether the movie is even really a documentary. Like most of Banksy’s work, it leaves one amused and thinking, but also disoriented and unsure about what it all really means.
In addition to the movie, Banksy is mostly known for his street art. His work is provocative, hilarious, and beautiful. There are too many images to reproduce here, but you can view photos of Banksy’s art through Google Images, on Flickr, and on his own web site. Some of his work simply plays with the idea of making art in a public space, like this:
Some appear to be critiques of urban life, like:
But he is more biting in his attacks on consumerism, like:
And he clearly has no use for authority, like in:
Sometimes he just wants to shock and amuse, like:
And often he just despairs, like:
Not everything about Banksy is likable, but then again there was much about Al Copeland not to like. Banksy does make his art on property he does not own, but much of it is on public property. We do have a procedure for commissioning public art, but it is unclear to me why majority rule over what speech occurs in public spaces is any more conducive to liberty than the free-for-all of the graffiti artists. The majority procedures tend to produce vaguely Stalinist glorifications of the state or banal inoffensiveness. They certainly severely restrict the amount of art and speech we have. In addition, as I’ve argued before, a competitive market of public art is akin to the competitive market of ideas in public debates. It’s almost certainly better not to centrally control it.
Banksy also has political views attributed to him with which I sometimes find myself in strong disagreement. Wikipedia describes his work as having “an array of political and social themes, including anti-War, anti-capitalism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, anti-authoritarianism, anarchism, nihilism, and existentialism.” I’m not sure that Banksy’s work has all of these qualities, since much about his work is ambiguous and his hidden identity makes it difficult to be certain of his views on anything. I definitely reject the notion that he is a nihilist, since he seems to care quite passionately about certain values.
And, like the creators of South Park, Banksy is not easy to categorize politically because he is more irreverent than he is an activist for any particular movement. If you think he is a revolutionary, remember that he once quipped: “Sometimes I feel so sick at the state of the world, I can’t even finish my second apple pie.” And if you think he is entirely anti-materialist, he jokes in the Q&A on his web site: “Why are you such a sell out? I wish I had a pound for every time someone asked me that.” And here are some of the images he has of activists:
To the extent we can know Banksy’s thinking, he seems mostly to be an idealist, lamenting innocence lost. This image on the barrier separating Palestinian and Israeli areas captures it pretty well:
By making our world more beautiful, by making us think, and by advancing the notions of free speech and liberty Banksy is worthy of the 2012 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.
Let’s not waste too much time wrestling with the ethical implications of Banksy’s street art. I view this kind of thing as the equivalent of driving five miles over the limit. Well, okay, ten.
I hasten to add that I only view it that way because the art is good – indeed, as you point out, it’s superior to legitimate public art. A lousy artist wouldn’t have the same moral license to get away with this sort of thing.
Does that imply an ethical dualism where some have moral rights (although not legal rights) that others don’t have? Yes. On the margins of the law, in the spaces where you can accomplish major good with minor infractions, the competent have more moral license than the incompetent.