Can artists exploit those who would prey upon them? Graffiti artist, political activist and filmmaker Banksy has done this in spades. With glee and irony he reckons with predatory promoters. Over the past two decades, Banksy has bested art dealers and beaten them at their own game.
Gradually, he hyped up his own notoriety and sweetened his Robin-hood-like credibility. Likewise, to this day using his anonymity, he keeps his fans and coattail riders enthralled. Most assuredly, no one has solved the mystery of his identity. Only those few sworn to secrecy, privileged to be his inner circle, have seen his face.
Banksy Most Wanted, directed by Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley, is a Tribeca Film Festival offering that I screened recently. I enjoy how Banksy thrives on anonymity, travels the world, and uses buildings as his canvases. Passionately, he paints and stencils ironic hieroglyphs. Always, these insure accessibility for the multitudes. Most notably, Banksy’s popularity transcends economic class. Even law enforcement appreciates his stark images and socially important messages. Assuredly, with sage wit Banksy tantalizes and exploits art dealers who traffic his work like vultures.
In their straight-shooting documentary Rouvier and Healey visit a multitude of locations. Using a mixture of video news clips and their own cinematography, they investigate the Banksy ethos with depth and humor. First, they chronicle his origins in Bristol, UK. Next, they trace his evolution from the 1990s. At that time he painted by hand. Subsequently, he decided upon spray painting. With it he could cover more area. Therefore, upping the ante by preparing stencils in his studio beforehand, he left off labor intensity. Stenciling probably also offered the speed to get in and out of locations without detection.
More recently, Banksy’s evolution has extended to outrageous live installations. Irreverently, he painted a live elephant in Los Angeles, riling animal rights activists. For the sheer cheek of it, he unleashed 200 rats in a London gallery. And with a nod to her sainthood, he embellished a portrait of Mother Teresa with the words “moisturize everyday.”
Identifying his most famous works in Bristol, London, Paris and New York, Rouvier and Healey relate the impact of these Banksys on the surrounding community. In one instance, the town of Port Talbot, Wales sued a dealer who took “their Banksy,” which held great significance for them.
To establish ownership the dealer first purchased a garage wall on which the Banksy was painted. Then he removed it with cranes to carve the images from the concrete and auction them off. During the litigation he discovered the art’s value to the community. The townspeople indeed believed Banksy had chosen their town to bless with his work.
Importantly, the town’s freeholder rights were found to supersede the dealer’s. Ironically, this was a heist for the little people. Their triumphant win was a gut-wrenching blow to the stomachs and wallets of art dealers everywhere.
In exploring Banksy’s wit, the filmmakers identify a few of his satiric, temporary art installations. For example, they show clips of the 2008 “Porta-Potty Stonehenge.” With these, we note Banksy’s self-debasing criticism, when he dubbed it “A Pile Of Crap.”
On the other hand, his 2015 “Dismaland Bemusement Park” targets “happy-time” superficiality. With mocking abandon, the work eerily unlayers Disneylands everywhere. Banksy described it as “a family theme park unsuitable for children.”
With avid enjoyment the directors highlight his adventurous pranks. One of these involved a Sotheby auction gallery audience watching the satirical self-shredding of the print “Girl With Balloon.” Cleverly using clips from the auction, the directors also show the individual who “switched on the button” to activate the frame’s shredder.
Throughout, the filmmakers question the Banksy ethos. Increasingly, his stenciled works find their way into areas of economic repression and cultural upheaval. Controversially, some appear in the West Bank. These works, including the restored “The Walled-Off Hotel,” positioned across the street from the Israeli-Palestinian West Bank barrier wall, raise questions. Surely Banksy fans and critics alike interpret them as an addendum to his political activism. And they label him a supposed critic of the dominant powers who would prevent others from securing a viable place at the table of life.
His works having become ubiquitous, Banksy has imprinted his perspective globally, sounding the underlying truths of our reality. And his searing and irreverent statements against imperialism, capitalism, earth destruction, climate change, consumerism, poverty, and racism empower the viewer.
However, all is not anti-establishment. He counterbalances these themes and subjects with images of love, innocence and endurance. In fact the documentarians focus on how he makes his guerilla art a velvet weapon. Furthermore, they reveal how his dichotomous images war against killing to uplift peace. With singularity and precision the directors emphasize the uniqueness of his creations. And they do justice to Banksy’s indictment of the West’s contributions to crimes against humanity in its greedy valuing of money over people.
Throughout their visual explication of Banksy’s subject matter and themes, the filmmakers delve into his message to the art world. Therefore, another lucid indictment emerges. For Banksy, great artistry moves beyond boundaries and walls of brick and mortar. It remains exclusive of hyped-up artificiality and “Tulip mania” trends.
For this reason he has left the art world spinning in circles. As they chop up walls to obtain his works in the hope of making a bundle, he intentionally dislocates their obsession. Most recently, to thwart dealers’ rapacity, owners of buildings have become Banksy fans. They refuse to sell. Instead, they plexiglass their Banksys to protect them. In this way they reinforce Banksy’s overarching instruction to street people. Art exists everywhere.
Over the years Banksy has garnered himself and a beleaguered art world a delicious, capitalistic profit. Reputedly his worth totals $50 million. So, for those who admire his anti-capitalistic, anti-consumer spirit, think again. Perhaps this anonymous rogue doth protest too much. However, the vital question remains.
Who is Banksy? For me, peeking behind the anonymity becomes a crucial high point of the film. With incisive interviews, the directors weave in and out to explore three possible identities. These they unravel, playing with the uncertainty of facts and details of “reliable” narrators. Afterward, they suggest a fourth possible Banksy. Clearly, the directors love their subject. And they have done their homework. They’ve presented a diorama showing that his anonymity has served a charitable purpose. Yet, they’ve proven Banksy also serves his own interests.
Others have been able to claim his work, either legally or emotionally. And his fans love adding to his aura by fantasizing about who is hiding behind the name. Through the testimonies of those who know him and have worked with him, but also of those who exploit him, hunt him down and claim him, Banksy Most Wanted paints a profound portrait of one of the foremost artists of our time. Importantly, it concludes with the vitality of the spirit that channels through the group of artists Banksy influences. And that makes all the difference in the world.