The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was cause for nationwide celebration, but not everybody was as jubilant as the royalists whose parties were featured on the news. For many, the event was a reminder of empire and oppression, and the famed street artist known as Banksy was one of them. On this particular occasion, his dissent took the form of a satirical artwork on the outside wall of a Poundland in London. The piece, which can be seen below, depicts a child labourer working in a sweatshop to create Union Jack bunting, and was put in place overnight by the elusive and enigmatic artist.
Almost immediately, the Poundland chain decided to protect the piece by covering it with a Perspex pane, maintaining the original quality whilst leaving it open to public observation. There is a lot which could be said to be ironic about this move. Most obviously is the fact that it shows a clear ignorance on the part of Poundland—they appear not to have realised the piece was mocking them, calling them out for their links to sweatshops in a derisive manner, not a glorifying one.
However, more importantly it raises two interesting questions about street art and the messages it conveys. Firstly, we might take it upon ourselves to consider the juxtaposition between Banksy’s intentions and his actions. On the one hand, he has publicly derided the ideas of capitalism, advertisements and their consequent consumerism, but on the other, the pursuit of and sale of his artwork has become a considerable capitalist venture in itself. By claiming responsibility for high profile pieces, he has actively contributed to the creation of a brand, compounding the effects of the institutions he so openly deplores. Street art has almost always been used as a rebellion against authority (famed though they are, Banksy’s artworks are examples of vandalism and therefore criminal) but through figures such as Banksy, it has actually become part of the corporate machine. There seems to be a lot of confusion in the world of graffiti art; a growing disparity between motive and consequence.
The same problem exists in the public perception of this medium. Society appears to have vastly misunderstood the inherently anti-establishment message of graffiti art, and has instead taken it upon itself to glorify the work of more famed figures such as Banksy. Most of his work exists in opposition to the culture of materialism, and yet this message is overlooked, ignored or perhaps consciously subverted by our incessant need to sell reproductions of his pieces.
Furthermore, this need to preserve graffiti art evidences a lack of appreciation its transitory nature. Street paintings are not designed to last forever — they are exposed to the elements, to fellow artists and to public removal, and are therefore created in the full knowledge that their existence is finite. Naturally, their messages are also of the moment: they convey a set of principles relating to distinctly contemporary issues (the Jubilee piece being a prime example of this). To forcibly upkeep or maintain this art is therefore to misunderstand everything that it represents: if Banksy had wanted to sell his work then he would have done so himself, and if he had meant for it to exist indefinitely he would have used a different medium.
When his art is defaced (as in the recent case of The Girl With a Pierced Eardrum) our reaction should not be one of derision, but of acceptance — after all, their vandalism is no more criminal than Banksy’s own, and responses such as this are all part of the graffiti art world. We need to thoroughly reassess the way we interact with this medium, and consider what it is actually telling us, because our current reactions are responsible for undermining everything it stands for. Is it a shame to have lost a piece of good art? Certainly. Should we mourn it as greatly as we do? Perhaps not.