The first thing to note in Bristol is that it feels a lot like San Francisco. The second thing to note in Bristol is the long queue in front of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Nevermind any further comparison between Bristol and San Francisco. What about the queue? They had all come to see the work of Banksy, Britain’s most (in)famous street artist.
But why? And why would he showcase his stuff in a museum?
For starters, it has to be acknowledged that Banksy’s work is truly amazing. His pieces convey simple, straightforward messages through powerful imagery. If only more artists would possess this skill.
The imagery mainly captures symbolic mismatches, even symbolic collisions. So we find protest police happily dancing through a flower field or riding on a rocking horse. An ancient nude sculpture dressed like a suicide bomber. A grandma fixing an anarchist’s face cover to make sure it looks okay. Most controversially, a Muslim woman wearing an apron that shows a half-naked female body with lingerie (see my pictures here).
All of this somehow feels unusual, uncomfortable, or even disturbing. We’ve seen images of protest police and we learned what to associate with them. We’ve seen flower fields and rocking horses and know what they represent. But protest police and flower fields put together? We’re confused.
I am also confused about people’s reaction to this kind of art. When you watch them, you can tell that they don’t know what to do. A lot of them smile or laugh uncomfortably. They appreciate the genius of the artist and the moment they are confronted with something extraordinary, something unusual. And then what?
Banksy has a political message. Do visitors to his exhibition see it underneath the creativity of his work? Probably. Do they reflect on it to the point that they go out and change something (if only their own life)? I’m not so sure.
Why did Banksy choose to show his street art in a museum? Street art is mainly a form of protest and resistance that is by definition marginal, and therefore not meant for a mainstream museum.
Unless… Unless the entire exhibition is Banksy’s latest work of art. I had the suspicion he was standing in some corner watching all of us smiling away at the protest police dancing through a flower field. Wasn’t he just mocking the world of art? Wasn’t he just making fun of museums as commercial institutions?
A phrase inside a big golden frame read, “Never underestimate the power of a big gold frame.”
The leaflet handed out at the exhibition had a red star in the caption to denote any “Attraction of outstanding merit”. There were no red stars on the museum map.