Banksy’s Graffiti Takeover: Art or Vandalism?

By vitamin
Banksy in NYC

If I were to go out on the street and ask 100 people whether or not the Mona Lisa was art, I’d bet my monthly college loan payment that I’d have at least 99 “yes’s”, with the possibility of one, maybe two lackadaisical “I-don’t-knows”. Now, what if someone paints a perfect replica of the Mona Lisa on the side of an abandoned factory – is it still art? What if it’s turned into a sticker and posted on every stop sign and light pole in the city … would it still be the same juggernaut of artistic expression as the one hanging in the Louvre?

Fear not, this won’t be a rehashing of that semester-long philosophy course you took in college. There will be no blue-book exam at the end of this post. However, we rarely get to see the debate of aesthetics in real-time … until now.

As you are reading this, a debate is raging in the streets of NYC over the legitimacy of the artist known as Banksy. I say ‘known as’ because his actual identity is a complete mystery. A native UK street/graffiti artist, he’s become (in)famous for the political and social satire engrained in his controversial work, as well as his complete disregard for public property and vandalism laws. From the dividing wall in the West Bank, to Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland, California, when Banksy’s work appears people tend to take notice – and his projects are overnight phenomenons that make it hard for authorities to catch up.

For his latest project, Better Out Than In, it was announced that he’d be using all of NYC as his canvas. One work a day, for the entire month of October. This has caused quite a stir across the five boroughs. Everyone has an opinion: Mayor Bloomberg wants it to stop, The New York Post wants an arrest; street art fans actively search for the work; up-and-coming artists look to make a name for themselves by defacing the originals; even building owners look to cash-in by removing and selling the affected sections of wall to private collectors. With each day and each new work, the buzz grows. One day it’s a painting, the next it’s a life-size sculpture of a brooding Ronald McDonald. You can follow the daily updates online at banksyny.com.

Everyone’s heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But how is it perceived in the eyes of the law? Where is the line between street art and graffiti? Is there a line? Should there be one? Who profits from street art and how is it valued? And how different is it really from guerrilla marketing and innovative out-of-home displays?

As the month draws to a close and these ideas begin to converge on one another I feel a growing tension much like a TV show heading toward a season finale. So what will the denouement be in the tale of ‘Banksy and the NYPD’? I haven’t the slightest idea. But I’m sure we’ll all look at the world in a different light. And isn’t that what art is meant to do?

 

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