In October of 2013, English street artist Banksy travelled to New York and took up a 31-day residency, announcing through his website that he would create a new piece of street art somewhere in the city every day for a month. Scattered across the whole of Manhattan Island these artworks sent people scrambling across the city, often to places they’d never been or heard of in order to catch a glimpse of the works before they were painted over, graffitied on or removed completely. The works ranged from paint on walls to sculptures to balloons to a dodgem car carrying a figure dressed as Death around an abandoned lot, and prompted unprecedented commentary on news networks and, most importantly, on social media.
Unlike Exit Through the Gift Shop, which Banksy produced and directed, Banksy Does New York has had (allegedly) no influence or input from the man himself. And that seems appropriate – each of the 31 (although arguably 30 – one piece wasn’t completed due to police interference) artworks was presented as a stand-alone piece, meant for the audience to insert their own meaning and, sometimes, even their own bodies into. Although some of the pieces came with museum-like ‘commentary’ tracks downloadable from Banksy’s website, these tracks were generally a parody of the art world and its penchant for self-indulgence and snobbery, rather than revealing anything about the pieces themselves.
And lot of the art pieces themselves acted in the same way, criticising and parodying the ‘high’ art world which, as the documentary shows, stubbornly refused to acknowledge Banksy or his work, either completely ignoring him or by offering a dismissive line like the “I prefer my art to be more subtle” that’s shown in the film.
It seems appropriate, then, that the film focusses instead on the huge social media frenzy that surrounded the residency, and the many, many ways that Banksy got New York talking about – and interacting with – street art. While a lot of the reactions celebrate the man, the art and his choice of New York for the residency, not all of the reactions and interactions were positive – the documentary highlights the negative reactions of many New Yorkers to people’s attempts to deface, cover up, or straight-out remove the works, as well as people who thought the works themselves were overrated, lacking in talent or just downright criminal. These reactions are especially interesting, and become central to the film’s main themes – what constitutes art? Who gets to decide? And who does the art really ‘belong’ to?
Through showing people who want to see it on the streets, people who pay to see it in galleries and private collections, people who pay even more to add it to their own private collections, and the people who take it off the streets to sell to the private collectors, the documentary shows all the different sides of all the people who feel they have a say and an entitlement to some aspect of Banksy’s art.
The film also adds some interesting political commentary, especially with the inclusion of Mayor Bloomberg’s public comments (that “graffiti is a sign of decay and of loss of control”, a view shared by many in power and a one which can be read in a number of different ways). The documentary goes on to offer another take on graffiti and street art, offering the question “who doesn’t want to live in a world made of art?”
And the film lets you make up your own mind about it, and indeed about everything surrounding Banksy. It presents a number of facts, a number of viewpoints, and a number of things to think about, but doesn’t tell you how or what to think about any of them. It’s a interesting approach, and one very in-keeping with Banksy’s work – while it may have a point to make, it will let you make your way to that point yourself, and decide whether or not you want to accept or reject it.
This documentary is a must-see for anyone who likes art, particularly those who either hate street art or love it. It’ll divide you, it’ll challenge you and it’ll make you think. And really, isn’t that the point of art?
Banksy Does New York is showing at Cinema Nova from the 23rd of April. Tickets at cinemanova.com.au. For more information on Banksy, check out his Artsy page.