The Art of Vandalism


Sam Goldman

Perhaps no one combines art, social and political messages, and intrigue better than the enigmatic British graffiti artist Banksy, who recently completed a headline-grabbing, month-long exhibition of some of his work in New York City. His stenciled pieces have appeared throughout England and the U.S., depicting themes like class struggle, hypocrisy, greed, anti-war, and anti-authoritarianism, and nearly all of them were done on city walls and buildings. Though many people admire the visual aspect of his work as well as the populist messages behind them, ultimately, Banksy’s work is glorified vandalism. Its look, style, and themes are not reason enough to justify defacing public and private property.

It’s not just the messages of his work and his creative depictions that make Banksy so popular; the utter mystery surrounding his identity, the way he has been able to produce his work without getting caught, and perhaps also his perfectly pulled-off “Screw it, I don’t care what you think of me” mentality all combine to turn him into a virtually unique and unequalled figure in society – the Batman of street art. Because of the nature of his work and character, people are often just fine with letting him go on about his business unimpeded.

Many people, I’m sure, also enjoy having readily accessible art. Visual art – which I believe requires skill and/or creativity and involves an attempt at depicting beauty, truth, or some other thought or feeling – is often shut away in a museum where people need money, time, and transportation in order to view it. Art is arguably a fundamental expression of our humanity, one that Banksy unapologetically tries to reintroduce back into plain view on the street corner.

While I do consider his work art, that doesn’t mean that it is immune to questions of ethics. Another artist, Damien Hirst, generated considerable outcry when he unveiled some work of his that involved the killing of 9,000 butterflies. The piece, from a purely aesthetic perspective, is beautiful, but the way Hirst went about producing it does not make it ethically acceptable. With an infinite number of ways to produce visual art, it is more than reasonable to expect modern society to produce it ethically. Though Banksy presumably does not go about killing anyone or anything in order to make his art, he is still defacing others’ property. Some of those whose property he uses may be perfectly fine with it, but obviously, not everyone will appreciate having their walls used as someone else’s canvas. Banksy cannot know ahead of time whether or not his targets will approve of his work, nor does he seek their permission. Using others in this way for one’s own work does not really constitute ethical art.

It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to see that Banksy’s style of using others’ property without permission could also potentially lead to a “slippery slope” kind of situation. A few people have already popped up attempting to take credit for his work, and it’s not hard to envision others eventually trying to replicate his M.O., leaving even more graffiti and likely not doing as good or evocative of a job. Since he’s become famous, numerous graffiti artists have appeared in his own hometown of Bristol as well as his other locations like London, New York, and Los Angeles. Where do we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable graffiti art?

I would probably be more sympathetic if Banksy’s work effected the social and political change in society he strives for. Though it may be a form of propaganda, the acceptability of his work would be another deal if he could actually initiate these important changes peacefully and responsibly. I’ve yet to hear, however, about the populist reforms his work seeks to generate. Sure, people talk about the messages he tries to impart, but the talk has yet to turn into meaningful action. Whether people just don’t see his objectives as important enough or their attention spans are just too short to convert momentary inspiration into action, Banksy doesn’t appear to be doing anything truly significant with his art.

I greatly admire the man’s creativity and message, but there are more appropriate ways he could go about it. Hanging his own canvas on a wall may lose him some of the gritty defiance that makes him so intriguing and is so characteristic of him, but would still accomplish getting his message out and bringing art back to the masses.