Tuesday, August 09, 2005

 

More on Banksy and the Wall

I have quite a few disagreements with Dana Gilerman's article in Ha'aretz on art on Israel's wall through the West Bank. Gilerman attempts to write about the conflict and tension that exists between protesting and hating the wall and turning it into art, between Palestinians living with the wall and outsiders who come to paint it, and so on. However, what could have been a very interesting article is instead shallow and disingenuous. Gilerman introduces us to this tension (after some intro about the wall's increasing presence in the art world), writing:
But one can now see pastoral scenes painted on the separation fence by Banksy, whom The Guardian has called "Britain's most celebrated graffiti artist." There are green trees on a seashore, scenes of Switzerland, the face of a horse looking through a window in its stall, a girl holding a bundle of ballons, and a boy playing with a pail against a blue sky.

A Ramallah resident approached the painter while he was working on these scenes and said, "You are painting the wall and making it beautiful."

"Thank you," the artist replied.

"We don't want it to be beautiful. We hate this wall. Go home."

Embellishment of the separation fence can be interpreted as implicit approval of its existence compared with the numerous demonstrations organized to bring it down - as a conflict between residents who suffer from the fence's existence and foreigners who view the fence as an opportunity to leave their mark and their worldview behind. While Banksy says that the fence is "illegal under international law and essentially turns Palestine into the world's [sic] largest open prison," on his Web site (www.banksy.co.uk), it is hard to sense protest in the handsome, narrative scenes he has painted, even if he intended them to express yearning for freedom.
First of all, the quote to which Gilerman refers is taken from Banksy's website. By refusing to disclose this fact, Gilerman is not only a bad journalist (telling a story as if she were there, rather than attributing it to its source), but refuses to acknowledge that Banksy himself is drawing attention to the contradiction of his art. Furthermore, it seems quite easy to me to sense protest in the scenes that Banksy painted on the wall. A girl tries to float over the wall with a handful of balloons. A hole in the wall reveals children playing on a beach. In most of the pieces, the very explicit theme is that of freedom, of the possibilities of freedom, the innocence and playfulness of children, and the juxtaposition of these images against the antithesis of these ideas, the wall, results in what I think could easily be seen as protest art. To see it as anything else, I think, is to miss the point.

This doesn't mean, however, that the contradictions and tensions that are illustrated in the back and forth between Banksy and the Palestinian do not exist. However, instead of plagiarizing from Banksy's website, Gilerman would have been better off talking to Palestinians so that we might get to hear some of what they think of Banksy's protest art. What do they think of using the wall as a canvas in general. Does art, even protest art, that "beautifies" the wall inherintly a bad thing? I would be interested to hear the varied responses.

Comments:
Yes, I agree. That is certainly disingenuous of Gilerman. Because Banksy's site makes it abundantly clear that he's well aware of the ambiguity of his art and the ambivalence and antagonism of his audiences, both Palestinian and Israeli. Does Gilerman include the Israeli reaction which Banksy reports on his website? The one in which the IDF guy tells him the safety's off?

The Palestinian criticizes the art's effect; the Israeli gets ready to shoot the artist. You decide which reaction is more civilized...which is to some unmeasurable degree precisely the reaction the art elicits in viewers outside the conflict. Which is more civilized and hopeful -- the wall or the acts of defiant whimsy?

For this reason, I think the Palestinian critic misread the effect of these paintings on the larger intended audience -- which is not the people building or suffering the wall. Putting something unexpected or beautiful on an ugly and monstrous thing makes the thing stand out in a new, starker way, draws attention to its purpose, underlines its monstrosity.

I also think that this "graffitti" stuff is becoming more and more like murals. The quality of the work is so high and the intent is so clearly not destructive or egotistic that it becomes much less easy to dismiss or scorn. You can see that in Gilerman's piece. He is trying to refute or at the least undermine the motivation of the artist. Which is why, I suppose, he has to make the artist appear unaware of the effect of the art on the presumed victims of the wall;i.e., he has to lie about the source of the dismissive anecdote.

Isn't this much like the 'debate' about Borg in DC? The more the graffiti artist is clearly an artist rather than a propagandist, the more complex and felt the reactions of the audience -- and that isn't good for authoritarians.

Aunt Deb

BTW, what's with the [sic] in the bit from the Gilerman piece? Is that supposed to be referring to the apostrophe in "world's" -- because that's a perfectly correct usage of the possessive. Or is it supposed to be drawing attention to the use of "world" itself? Like we're all supposed to think of the Great Wall of China as an example that makes this apartheid wall not the biggest?
 
Yeah, I wondered what the hell the [sic] was about also. I definitely agree about graffiti and was bummed when Borf (now's when that [sic] comes in handy) got caught. I still smile, though, when I pass the piece he wrote on the guardrail on my way home where he wrote "Don't smile... You'll get wrinkles --- Borf" and somebody wrote "We miss you" next to it.
 
Yeah, it was the Borg who caught Borf! No wonder I got confused...

Aunt Deb
 
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