Postmodernism is a term that gets tossed around a lot these days, usually by people who are trying to sound intellectual, hip, or otherwise superior to the average conversationalist. My ears always perk up when I hear someone drop the pomo bomb, because I can’t help but be curious as to what their interpretation of the term is. Classifying anything as postmodern is a difficult task in and of itself because the aesthetic, genre, movement, period, and all other referents of the word inherently resist definition and thrive on instability. Even so, I find myself moved to attempt such a classification, mostly because I’ve found a subject that seems to personify it so perfectly.
You may have heard of Banksy as a subversive street artist, a vandal, an existencilist or a revolutionary, but I like to think of him as a pioneer of the postmodern project. Of a similar nature to the movement itself, the graffiti artist is seemingly unidentifiable and always becoming in response to the now.
Termed a guerilla artist, his distinctive brand of satirical street art can be found all over the world in socio-politically significant places like post-Katrina New Orleans, the wall dividing Israel and Palestine, and the happiest place on earth, Disneyland. And he doesn’t restrict himself to solely exterior venues. There are videos of him subverting his work in several prominent museums, and his art has shown up in the Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, along with London’s Tate Britain Gallery and the British Museum. His combination of pop, prank, art, and accessibility has led to renown on an international scale.
Although a rising force in the art world and somewhat of a pop phenomenon, the illustrious and intriguing Banksy chooses to keep his identity a mystery to the masses, making his increasingly popular persona mostly a product of perspective. There is no public figure with which to associate the images, and in this sense, he exists largely as representation. How pomo of him, right?
What is often referred to (by those snobby Modern-era enthusiasts) as low form, or even anti-form art, graffiti is Banksy’s chosen medium for many, seemingly obvious, reasons. The process, which is often championed over the product from a postmodern perspective, complements his anti-establishment message perfectlyâ€”its being illegal and all. Embracing irony and surviving on an anarchic, law-breaking process, he’s stretching the boundaries of genre and form while appearing to disregard them all together. He talks about the issue of form in his book, “Wall and Piece:”
Despite what they say graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Although you might have to creep about at night and lie to your mum it’s actually one of the more honest art forms available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on the best walls a town has to offer and nobody is put off by the price of admission.
A wall has always been the best place to publish your work.
Banksy’s art is living among us in our streets speaking boldly and defiantly to the masses, to the passerbys, to the everyday man. There is no singular original housed inside some museum that we must pay to view, but rather copies externally posited and exposed to the same forces of nature as we. The pieces are participating in the real right alongside us.
In his book, “Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall,” Banksy writes:
Bus stops are far more interesting and useful places to have art than in museums. Graffiti has more chance of meaning something or changing stuff than anything indoors. Graffiti has been used to start revolutions, stop wars, and generally is the voice of people who aren’t listened to. Graffiti is one of those few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make somebody smile while they’re having a piss.
His mass-produced pieces set out to affect the peopleâ€”to make them notice the flaws of their society, the irony in their virtues, and the hypocrisy in their policies. To do this, the art must live amongst the people it is trying to reach and interact with them. It is a palimpsest; it can be written over. It’s impermanent, susceptible to change and destruction (usually carried out by peons of the system that it’s speaking out against). The work participates in the real in order to engage in conversation with it, to see what that real will do to it. Immanent in the elusive entity comprised of the name Banksy and the works associated with it is a vital vein of the postmodern movement. And in true pomo fashion, that vein is ever-evolving and still manages to shock those that follow it.
The latest shock came in the form of Banksy’s new film billed "The world’s first street art disaster movie." Serving to amplify the Banksy buzz, the documentary Exit through the Gift Shop showed up rather surprisingly on the Sundance schedule in March. Despite the film’s absence within the fest’s catalog and its late addition to the lineup, Banksy fans lined up outside the 446-seat Library Center Theatre in the below-freezing weather hours before the 8:30 PM screening hoping they would catch a glimpse of this, the premiere American showing of the film rightly rumored to actually feature (albeit as a hooded, shadowy figure using a voice synthesizer) the man of mystery himself. The audienceâ€”including the likes of Adrian Grenier, Jared Leto and Danny Mastersonâ€”was prepped by the reading of a message from the film’s creator who, curiously, couldn’t be there to address the crowd himself:
Ladies and gentlemenâ€¦and publicists: Trying to make a movie which truly conveys the raw thrill and expressive power of art is very difficult, so we haven’t bothered. Instead, this is simply an everyday tale of life, longing, and mindless vandalism. Everything you are about to see is true, especially the bits where we all lie. Thanks for coming. Please don’t give away the ending on Twitter. And please, don’t try copying any of this stuff at home. Wait until you get to work.
The documentary, narrated by Rhys Ifans (Hugh Grant’s quirky roommate in Notting Hill), at the start seems to be a documentary of street art featuring some of its most prominent practitioners, but quickly evolves into what the LA Times rightly called "a sly satire of celebrity, consumerism, the art world and filmmaking itself." This film is unlike anything I’ve seen. Banksy manages to put together a film that is smart, expository, honest, stunningly ironic, funny and a sort of saddening all at the same time. Sundance Director, John Cooper, said in a statement before the actual screening: "The story is so bizarre I began to question if it could even be realâ€¦ but in the end I didn’t care. I feel bad I won’t be able to shake the filmmaker’s hand and tell him how much I love this film. I think I will shake everyone’s hand that day and hope I hit on Banksy somewhere. I love his work in all forms." As do I, Cooper. As do I. Luckily for us Bostonians, “Exit through the Gift Shop” has finally made it to a theater near us, and for a mere ten bucks we can see it at Kendall Square any day of the week. Make the trip to Cambridge to see the latest from our beloved postmodern pioneer and form your own opinions. I’m convinced you’ll be glad you did.