Little Tart loves it all…most of the time

Banksy…Duchamp’s heir?

Posted on: July 10, 2007

As promised a few days ago, here is my essay on the artists Marcel Duchamp and Banksy.

The Picnic

The Fountain

But is it Art?

Earlier this year I took the class “Mythology, Folklore & Symbols” where we discussed the role of “The Trickster” in society and mythology. The Trickster, while perceived as an irritant by those around him, is ultimately responsible for upsetting the status quo. The Trickster becomes the archetypal character for creating change in the world. Without the Trickster pushing the limits of acceptable behaviors, thoughts, or actions, there would be no forward motion in society and culture would stagnate. The artist is a perfect example of the power a Trickster holds for effecting change in society. The two works of art I chose were created by trickster artists. One is already an acknowledged Master Trickster and his “trick” changed the fabric of society. The second is at the beginning of his reign as head trickster and I believe his greatness “trick” is still before him.
Marcel Duchamp’s “The Fountain” was known as “Readymade” art. Created in 1917 and signed “R. Mutt”, the piece was a white porcelain urinal. The original piece is considered “missing” and the included picture is one of Duchamp’s commissioned reproductions currently housed in Philadelphia. It has elegant curves (for a urinal), flaring out at the sides with drain holes down the back and a hole on the front for attaching a pipe. Overall “The Fountain” is a very spartan and utilitarian piece. When exhibited “The Fountain” was left uninstalled, which removed it completely from its intended purpose and allowed Duchamp to redefine it to his.
My second piece, at first, seems much more conventional. Created by the artist known as Banksy “The Picnic” is a stark installation piece on a large white canvas with a Caucasian family reclining on a red checked blanket (red being the only color on the canvas) sharing a meal while shaded by a fringed umbrella. Surrounding the smiling family are starving Africans with stoic expressions. The details are photo-realistic which lends the painting a journalistic quality. I have been unable to verify what media were used on “The Picnic” but the vast majority of Banksy’s work is done with hand-cut stencils made from computer prints rendered on acetate and completed using spray paint.
Duchamp’s “The Fountain” is classic trickster-ism. I love this piece for its audacity. Pardon my language, but Duchamp had the balls to make fun of not only himself, but also the whole art world. I would suggest that “The Fountain” is a pivotal moment in the birth of “Irony”. He asks the viewer, the artist, and the critic, to re-exam what defines art. Even if that examination doesn’t result in the viewer considering “The Fountain” or any of his other “Readymades” as art, it still makes them think and question their own biases and prejudices, and this should be the ultimate goal of all art works. The process of creating artwork should fundamentally change not only the creator, but the witnesses as well.
Banksy seems to innately understand this as well. His original works were revolutionary graffiti pieces left across Bristol and London. Often visual puns, his early works were outsider art that forced the public to reconsider what is art. Does it hang in a museum or could it be a spray painted rat on an alley wall? That being said I would not hang “The Picnic” in my home, (though Angelina Jolie doesn’t concur as she purchased this piece as 1 of 3 for around $400,000) but obviously it has stuck in my mind since I saw it in February on BoingBoing.net. Banksy’s painting has an unpleasant edge tinged with a healthy dose of black humor. His work is confrontational and “in your face”. It memorable both as an art piece but also as a piece of spectacle. I can imagine my grandfather looking at this canvas and getting angry; saying its not art, dismissing it as silly and without merit (like he would with MTV my whole childhood). That imagined response is partially why I selected this artwork. So often paintings are seen only as pretty wall hangings, or home décor. A Thomas Kincade print, bought at the mall, soothes the consumer; it does not taunt or tease or confront the viewer. Mainstream art is benign, and most audiences prefer it that way. Banksy’s motive is to make the audience respond to this piece even if that response is anger or dismissal. While many artists might long for gushing accolades, I get the sense from Banksy’s body of work he thinks like a true trickster and enjoys watching the chaos and emotions his images create.
Aside from his intentions, “The Picnic” its self is a powerful work. The stark black and white is visually arresting. The lack of background details makes what photo realistic details Banksy has included that much more important. Banksy’s family smile and laugh, fashionable and trendy; they are affluent post-colonialists reclining on the only spot of color: red. Banksy obviously intends this to be blood. This robust family feasts upon the blood of its colonies, eating what was stolen from others, but ignorant of the fact. The Africans are resigned, standing to the side, well behaved, as they have been trained to be, after years of colonial control. Their children are dying, they out number the family (in a few cases they are even armed), but still they stand silently accepting their fate. Why?
What is Banksy saying here? I understand his intentions with the diners, but what am I supposed to learn from the passive Africans? Is this a call to action for the Third World or simply a condemnation of the First World? Is it either? Or is Banksy an empty sensationalist exploiting the images of suffering and gluttony to create reaction? Should his intentions have any impact on my visceral response? I love that he makes me ask this. That every time I try and answer one of my questions, I suddenly have another, and another and another…
That is what great art offers the world: a chance to change, to learn from introspection and emotions. Art is not rational but it does demand that the audience participate. Take for example Paleolithic cave art, as seen in Lascaux, France (and elsewhere). Anthropologists now believe its creation to be a group experience. The artists would paint while the tribe would chant and dance. Through out the whole cave complex the ground is beaten down by the feet of marching participants. Art was then a group activity: The audience participated in the creation of ideas and emotions along with the artist. I think the modern action of seeing movies in the theater or live concerts may be the only equivalent creative group activity we have left as a culture and in those cases the audience is still far removed from the actual creative impulse. Art has become very far removed from our daily lives. I myself, a women who is planning a career in museum design and exhibition, actually spends very little time thinking about the meaning, both intentional and unintentional in art pieces. When it comes to creative impulse our culture really has become “out of sight, out of mind”.
Banksy and Duchamp’s pieces may have been designed out of sight, but in both cases they refuse to allow the viewer not to respond to their message. Creativity is not a passive project, its living and fluid and must be constantly reinvented by each of us. Duchamp knew this for fact. His “Fountain” is proof of his daring and 500 art scholars in 2005 declared him the most important artist of the 20th Century because of it. Banksy, still a young artist, has not produced his masterwork yet, but I have no doubt it will enrage, inspire and create ripples of change. Banksy is the artistic grandchild of that old Trickster Duchamp; I look forward to seeing if he can outsmart the master.

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