NYC Opening: ‘Banksy: Genius or Vandal?’ Pretty Much Answers its Own Question

Even as the global press began to follow his every move, resourceful thieves extracted his work from the sides of buildings, and international collectors bought and bought (and bought), exalted Bristol, UK guerrilla artist Banksy still somehow managed to continue to carry on with a spectacular run – more than 20 years – of keeping his activities within the ideological realm of the “underground.” But perhaps it was inevitable in this age of the contemporary spectacle, that eventually the traveling exhibition extravaganzas would commence – and commence they most definitely have.

First there was The Art of Banksy, which gathered from a number of private collections and showed everywhere from Amsterdam to Yokohama to Tel Aviv. It’s been followed by the more slyly titled Banksy: Genius or Vandal?, which opens in New York this week after playing to more than three million people in fifteen cities around the globe. Featuring more than eighty works by the art world’s chief agitator/provocateur, it’s a tremendous opportunity to take in a wide survey of his oeuvre, perhaps in hopes of discerning an overarching narrative.

Of course, the question being forwarded in the title has already been answered – no one worthy of judging such matters doesn’t think Banksy is a genius. And as that genius has inspired multiple interpretations, this exhibition seeks to add a layer of clarity to the mystery.

It’s set up in a space at 14th street and 6th Avenue that was once an Urban Outfitters – and a Best Buy before that – the former mainstream retail location seeming deliciously ironic for an artist who so thoroughly skewers the creeping insidiousness of contemporary consumerism. It’s a fairly comprehensive overview of his work, complemented by detailed written descriptions that paint a picture of the logistics and motivations behind the work. Banksy’s art doesn’t ask us to find our own meaning in it; the meaning is very much telegraphed, and if, perhaps having missed that particular news story we don’t get the message, the curators here explain it to us, sufficiently.  

Along with ruminations on consumerism, Banksy’s favorite topics include cops and policing, corrupt politics (especially the UK variety), the environment, and class division – and each gets its due here. Napalm shows the well-known image of a terrified/crying, naked young girl fleeing a bombing raid in Vietnam in 1972, being escorted on either side by Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse. It needs no help deciphering its contrast of realities. Devolved Parliament, however, a rare and highly detailed oil painting by the graffiti and silkscreen master, benefits from a description of the UK’s parliamentary handling of Brexit, depicting those in power as a hall full of monkeys.

Elsewhere there are examples of work that existed just for a short while before being painted over or stolen, fast-motion film of Banksy and his team stealthily working the side of a building in darkness, and recreations of his studio and his fascinating processes. 

Thrillingly, his fantastical 3D curations are also included. Who remembers the short lived theme-park-from-hell Dismaland in 2015, which imagined the other D-land as if it were as fun as visiting Chernobyl? Or Jerusalem’s Walled Off Hotel, a functioning 10 room boutique sleep just meters in front of the Israel/Palestine border wall. And finally, for an extra $5 you can take a 10-minute VR ride through imagined urban streets festooned with innumerable works by surely the most ideological artist of the post-punk generation – one who exists in our imagination, while his messages help to shape our view of reality.

Banksy: Genius or Vandal? will be on view at 526 6th Avenue, NYC until December 14.

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