It’s difficult to try and sell New Yorkers (or anyone really) on the idea that Banksy, the British street artist, activist, provocateur, overdetermined-thumber-of-nose, yada yada, is a mediocre talent. Banksy is currently in the midst of his New York residency where he has been pranking, painting, and perturbing. Most famously during his weeks-long stint, authentic works from the unidentified artist were sold in Central Park for $60 a pop to tourists, almost none of whom realized they were purchasing art worth tens of thousands of dollars. Only a few bit and countless others passed by dismissively.
Earlier this week, the art critic Jerry Saltz decided he’d had enough and pulled a stunt of his own, leading a master class on the streets of the Upper West Side to knock down Banksy a peg or two.
No, I’m not a fan — and this morning, I loved doing art criticism in public, playing a balding Jewish Sister Wendy, arguing with everyone, trying and failing to convince onlookers that Banksy’s art is conventional political realism and doesn’t pack anywhere near the formal or psychological incendiary wallop of, say, the artist Kara Walker, who’s been making cutout paper silhouettes of slave life for almost twenty years. The experience was so charged with possibility I suggested taking a bunch of the crowd up with me to MoMA, where we could do this in front of Picasso’s staggering masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Till that happens, you might find me trolling other Banksys.
There’s video too. More recently, while attempting to do a television segment, Saltz’s run at the throne was foiled in part by the general unwillingness of passersby to talk Banksy for a certain television station.
As in the other interviews I’ve done, whenever I’d ask anyone on the street, “Hey! You wanna be on TV with me to talk about this art?” the person would instantly say yes. They’d walk up to me, on camera; I’d point, they’d get ready to speak, and then ask me, “Oh. What station is this for?” Yesterday, I said “It’s for Al Jazeera.” Whoa! Almost everyone freaked out and backed away. They started saying things “I don’t know” or “Aren’t they bad?” Almost everyone said no. Stunned, I kept pleading: “No, no. It’s okay. I’m a Jewish art critic.” That didn’t seem to help, at all. And I’d stand there alone with people staring at me like I was the Arab Street.
Saltz’s commentary is worth a read. That said, I wonder what happens to graffiti artists in Qatar.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.