31 Oct Art is Anything You Can Get Away With.
Banksy is an artist of some acclaim. Yet this morning on the radio I heard the New York mag art critic dismiss his work completely stating that it’s “so obvious”. The metallic tones of classism rolled off his tongue like silver dollars sliding into a gilded slot machine. The truth is, I don’t particularly love Banksy’s work, but to argue that it isn’t important is foolhardy, and the hoopla and discussion around his New York residency make it impossible to deny his import.
In the mid 80’s, when I was in high school, my parents occasionaly took my brother and I to Washington DC for the weekend. They liked to take us up for the culture, and my dad liked to buy the untaxed DC liquor and drive it back to North Carolina. The saving cancelled out the cost of gas (win/win). On one I carried my camera with me everywhere. DC, like New York of that era, was still pretty sketchy in a lot of areas. I took one picture of a grafittied parking lot wall that really stuck with me. In pretty simple lettering someone had neatly scrawled “Art is Anything You Can Get Away With – Andy Warhol”. I didn’t know a lot about Mr. Warhol at that point, but that simple quote spoke to me deeply. I’m still unpacking that idea today. (I just found my negative of this image and a google search revealed that Nathan Lyons photographed it years ago)
At the time I was taking a graphics art class so I took the photo and turned it into a silkscreen and made T-shirts. Looking back I would say that this was my first fully formed artwork and it laid a foundation for all of the work I would make over the following 30 years. I have been doing a lot of looking back at what I’ve made and what it means. I have come to understand that the sweet spot for me is work that documents, raises questions that nudge people towards expanding their thinking, and is aesthetically compelling (without having the aesthetics overwhelm the ideas). For me a balance between these ideas is the glue that holds things together. The t-shirt worked on an aesthetic level. It was catchy visually. It also was self-reflexive in the sense that it was in itself getting away with an appropriation of an appropriation. At the same time the aesthetics of it covered for the headiness of the ideas. I’m gonna have to remake that shirt.
At the time that Mr. Warhol was making art he had his supporters and his critics, and he still does. However, he also has his own museum. There is no doubt that he got away with it. As I write in defense of Banksy the word “koons” keeps popping into my head. I pretty much hate Jeff Koon’s art, for the same reasons I kind of like Banksy’s. Even though they both traffic in cliché, Koons work feeds the rich and Bansky is more akin to Robin Hood. In fact the story on the news this morning that led to the New York Magazine critic’s blanket dismissal was about the painting that Banksy had made for the Housing Works Thrift shop. They are both artists and I do believe that they both got away with it.
While the Warhol shirt was my first fully formed art work (to be clear I made some sick 2nd and 3rd grade books), Malls Across America was my first fully formed body of work. I think that one of the reasons the hair stood up on my neck this morning when Mr. New York dismissed Banksy for essentially being too simple and accessible, is that my work clearly connects with people, yet it has not been understood or embraced by the art world. The mall work is the first example of this but this reality has existed throughout my life as artist. I don’t think I’ve gotten away with it just yet. However, the more the work connects with people, the harder it becomes to ignore it.