Narrative In Art

A Cluster of Interesting Thinking


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Chelsea Kehrli

Rufi Cole

Critical Reasoning

22 April 2011


What thrills you? What excites you, amuses you, gives you that adrenaline rush? What gives you that high, that tingle, that rush of stimulation throughout your body? It is different for everyone. Some people get their thrills from jumping out of an airplane, swimming with sharks, and even sitting home on a Saturday night, knitting. But while you’re sitting home making a scarf on your Saturday night, some of us are out, getting a different kind of thrill. We go out late, backpacks fully loaded with an ample supply of paint; we hop fences and scale buildings; we run through train yards and through the woods to get to our destination: an empty wall. We paint. Sometimes we have to leave our task sooner than planned, but that just adds to the rush that we get while making our artwork, our graffiti. This is the rush, the enjoyment, and the excitement that many graffiti artists get. Banksy is one of those artists.

Banksy was born in Bristol, England in 1975. Banksy’s real name is Robert Banks, but his name, as well as his birth date is questionable. Not too much is known about Banksy because he tries to remain anonymous. Banksy started doing underground graffiti in England at a very young age. His early graffiti consisted of quick “tags” of his name. Graffiti, being the illegal activity that it is, is something that needs to be done in a short amount of time to avoid being caught. A quicker way of doing graffiti is to make a stencil and then quickly paint over it. Banksy started making his own stencils, and some of his more common stencils were his own depictions of London policemen, rats, and children. Banksy tagged all over England, and soon enough his work started becoming very recognizable. Eventually Banksy came to the U.S. and his work was also recognized over here. He has a very unique style to his stencils. They often include political messages and crude humor. Banksy’s stencils are often very real looking and make people look twice to see whether the art is real or not. His work has a certain “tromp l’oeil” feel to it, which means, “trick of the eye.” Banksy’s work just kept getting more popular and is very easily recognized all over the U.S. Banksy’s stencils got bigger, and better, and so did his stunts that he started to pull. He has snuck into a Disney theme park and put a blow up doll representing a prisoner inside a restricted gated area. He has also taken an elephant, yes, a real live colossal, enormous elephant, painted it, and placed it into one of his shows in a small room. Most of his larger stunts like these have some kind of political intention behind them, but he has also done smaller stunts to get his work out there, such as putting his own framed artwork onto museum walls. Banksy started doing shows where many celebrities would show up and buy his work for absurd amounts of money, but he still remains incognito at the opening of his shows.

Banksy’s artwork challenges people. Yes, graffiti is still a crime and is seen as vandalism, but not as much as it used to be. Today, graffiti is more accepted by mainstream society because it has become so commercialized and popular, but then again, there are some people who still walk by that same old ratty looking building with the graffiti on it, and don’t even give it a second glance. Those are the people Banksy is trying to reach. Most of his artwork has a message behind it, more of a “read between the lines” type of message. That message challenges people, it makes them look twice at the art and really think about what it means. His work can be very controversial at times, but that’s a good thing. It challenges the viewer before the viewer gets a chance to challenge the art. There are a few of his pieces that come to mind that do this to the viewer:

This first piece is of a little girl frisking a soldier.  Now I am not a person who follows politics or any sort of matter along those lines; I don’t always understand the exact reference of his work, but I get the main point. This piece is all about reversing roles. If that soldier, or any figure of authority were “patting down” an adult, we would assume that it was okay because they are doing their job. Now put in a child instead of an adult. We would suspect it a bit more, but still assume that it was okay and that the soldier was doing his job. Now completely reverse the rolls and give the soldier’s duties to the child…now what do you think? Do these “civil duties” really seem civil anymore? It makes you question an awful lot, even your moral beliefs that maybe you have been brought up with your whole life. It challenges us to make a discovery about our own personal beliefs. The Greek philosopher Aristotle talks about making a discovery in terms that may shed light on exactly what Banksy is attempting to do.

And a discovery, as even its name implies, is a change from ignorance to recognition, leading toward either friendship or hostility in people bound for good or bad fortune. A discovery is most beautiful when it happens at the same time as a reversal. (Aristotle 35)

Banksy’s work follows Aristotle’s view of discovery of “ignorance to recognition.” Banksy wants people to get over their own ignorance and self-indulgence, and pay attention to something other than themselves. If they pay attention to his art, or any artwork for that matter, the art can really challenge their own views and make them ask themselves why they believe what they do, once their belief is challenged from someone else’s standpoint. Aristotle makes a point that a discovery is something that we as humans enjoy. That is why he feels that it is an important element to add into a play because there is something about a character discovering something of oneself that the viewer enjoys as it evokes some sort of emotion of fear and pity. The discovery may not even be about oneself, but either way, it brings out emotions in people and we enjoy it when we see it. Often times, there may be something that we as the viewer do not want to see or hear, but if the device of a reversal, or a discovery is used, then we might enjoy it. This is what Banksy does; his work may not appeal to everyone, but by using these devices of a reversal or a discovery, his work entices the viewer. His work grabs the viewer’s attention because it is in the form of a reversal in this particular piece, and it makes the viewer challenge what they are looking at.

Another of Banksy’s pieces that challenges the viewer is the one of the maid lifting up a curtain, or is she really? This is one of those “tromp l’oeil” examples. At first glance, you see a maid about to hide the dust under the rug or curtain. At second glance, you see a brick wall under the curtain. Take a third look, and you realize that the curtain is part of the brick wall and that it was painted to seem like a real curtain was being lifted. This piece really challenges the viewer to take a second look to figure out what is really going on. This relates to another philosopher by the name of Arthur Schopenhauer, who speaks about the illusion of art.

This is really the reason waxwork figures make no aesthetic impression and are consequently not works of art in the aesthetic sense), although when they are well made they produce a far greater illusion of reality than the best picture of statue can and if imitation of the actually were the aim of art would have to be accorded first rank. (Schopenhauer 160)

Schopenhauer talks about this idea of the waxwork figure and how it does not make an impression, at least not when the art is trying to give pleasure through beauty. The wax figure doesn’t appeal to beauty because it is a representation of something so real. He says the only way it pleases us aesthetically is if the artwork is made well and produces such a great illusion of reality while at the same time reminding us that it is an illusion. Thus Schopenhauer prefers the stone statue, which gives the illusion of the human form, without making the mistake of providing the illusion of human skin. Banksy has a strong aesthetic impression in his work. He produces that “greater illusion of reality” by his style of graffiti, especially in this piece because it seems so real at first glance.

Another good example of Banksy’s art that challenges the viewer is this image of the “hero.” This hero is not your typical hero though; he is a homeless man holding a sign with this message to the public: “KEEP YOUR COINS, I WANT CHANGE.” According to Aristotle, a hero is what makes a play. That hero should not be your typical hero though; they have to have flaws and be relatable to the audience, but are still special in some way. Banksy does the same with his art. Some of his stencils are these “lowly” characters that we see in every day life, but don’t really notice, just like the homeless man in this piece and the same homeless man we all pass on the sidewalk. The one in this piece has a message for the viewer though, and again it challenges the viewer. This piece can only challenge the viewer to a certain point though. His message on his sign is an unusual one that does challenge us, but it’s not a real homeless man. It is just a painting of one. When the viewer looks at it and is challenged by the message, they wonder more about the artist who made it and what the artist was thinking. It would have more of an effect it we saw a real homeless man holding this sign. This relates back to Schopenhauer’s views of the wax figure. Banksy’s painting of the homeless man would be the wax figure because it seems so real and challenges us, but it does not have the strong effect that a real homeless man would, like a stone statue. When the viewer reads that cardboard sign, they wonder about Banksy and why he made this. Not much is known about him or his motives so we all want to know “who the heck is this guy?!”

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary that came out in 2010. This documentary is probably the most exposure of Banksy that the public has ever seen, even though the documentary is not even about Banksy. The documentary is about a strange French man named Thierry Guetta who is obsessed with his video camera. He would film nonstop every day, mostly his family, until he started filming is cousin who is a well-known street artist. From then on, Thierry would go with his cousin everywhere and constantly film his cousin tagging. He met many other street artists through this process of filming and became well known amongst them. Thierry filmed many of the greats, but there was one who he became obsessed with trying to catch on film: Banksy. Eventually, Thierry got his wish and got introduced to Banksy and from then on, the two worked as a partnership. Banksy eventually convinced Thierry to take his boxes, and boxes of film that he had accumulated over the years and turn them into a documentary. Thierry did just that; it sucked. Banksy decided to help him out and started editing it with Thierry. From Thierry’s inspiration of this documentary and filming all of these street artists, he too wanted to make street art. The film goes on to show how Thierry became this street art genius known as “Mr. Brainwash;” a Banksy copycat over night. So to put things in perspective, this documentary is directed by Banksy, but about a man named Thierry, who tried to make a documentary about Banksy; mind- boggling, but all in all a great and comical documentary.

There is much controversy over this documentary to whether it is real or not. Some people say that Mr. Brainwash is not even real and that this was all Banksy’s idea to cleverly make a documentary about himself, but to make it seem like it is not even about him. .

I love the fact that Banksy remains anonymous, the fact that his art makes you laugh at first until you figure out the real meaning, the fact that there are still artists out there that are not afraid to scale a fence in the middle of the night to make art for the thrill of it, the fact he can pull off the amazing technique of tromp l’oeil that renaissance painters took who knows how long to achieve, when he does it in a few minutes sometimes. Banksy is a creative genius, and unfortunately a sell-out; or at least he is on his way to being one. Banksy is one of my favorite artists and yes he still remains anonymous, but him and his work are so hyped up today in pop culture that it makes him lose a bit of his charm in my eyes. It is quite wonderful for him as an artist to have his work out there and so easily recognized and to make money off of it and to not be a starving artist forever. But the other part of me always thought that being a street artist meant that you keep your work on the street and out of museums and collector’s houses who probably don’t even know what the art work means; they just bought the piece because it said the name “banksy” on it and because Angelina Jolie bought one too. A big part of this type of art is all about the thrill of going out there and tagging and being a rebel, or at least it used to be. It is a tough choice to pick sides with Banksy. I admire him, but I lose respect at the same time. I don’t know his thoughts or intentions as to why he makes art anymore, but it should not be about the money. Graffiti artists do what they do for the thrill and the rush and to rebel, and to see how far they can push that envelope of the law; not to make a quick buck, or in Banksy’s case thousands and thousands of quick bucks. Either way you look at it, the man is still a genius and it is great when artist’s work achieves the thoughts of the viewer going “I wonder what this artists intentions were.” Banksy tells a story through his spray paint and stencils, you just have to read between the lines.

Works Cited

-Aristotle. Poetics. 2006 Focus Publishingv

-“Banksy Biography.” Entry Page. Web. 09 May 2011. <;.

– “Banksy Biography – Life, Children, Name, School, Old, Born, Time, Year, Career – Newsmakers Cumulation.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Web. 09 May 2011. <;.

-Schopenhauer, Arthur. Essays and Aphorisms. 1970 Penguin Books

“Once upon a time, there was a king who ruled a great and glorious nation. Favourite amongst his subjects was the court painter of whom he was very proud. Everybody agreed this wizzened old man pianted the greatest pictures in the whole kingdom and the king would spend hours each day gazing at them in wonder. However, one day a dirty and dishevelled stranger presented himself at the court claiming that in fact he was the greatest painter in the land. The indignant king decreed a competition would be held between the two artists, confident it would teach the vagabond an embarrassing lesson. Within a month they were both to produce a masterpiece that would out do the other. After thirty days of working feverishly day and night, both artists were ready. They placed their paintings, each hidden by a cloth, on easels in the great hall of the castle. As a large crowd gathered, the king ordered the cloth be pulled first from the court artist’s easel. Everyone gasped as before them was revealed a wonderful oil painting of a table set with a feast. At its centre was an ornate bowl full of exotic fruits glistening moistly in the dawn light. As the crowd gazed admiringly, a sparrow perched high up on the rafters of the hall swooped down and hungrily tried to snatch one of the grapes from the painted bowl only to hit the canvas and fall down dead with shock at the feet of the king. ’Aha!’ exclaimed the king. ’My artist has produced a painting so wonderful it has fooled nature herself, surely you must agree that he is the greatest painter who ever lived!’ But the vagabond said nothing and stared solemnly at his feet. ’Now, pull the blanket from your painting and let us see what you have for us,’ cried the king. But the tramp remained motionless and said nothing. Growing impatient, the king stepped forward and reached out to grab the blanket only to freeze in horror at the last moment. ’You see,’ said the tramp quietly, ’there is no blanket covering the painting. This is actually just a painting of a cloth covering a painting. And whereas your famous artist is content to fool nature, I’ve made the king of the whole country look like a clueless little twat.”
— Banksy (Wall and Piece)


Written by narrativeinart

January 16, 2011 at 6:14 pm

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