The Movement: The Banksy Effect
In 2010 a documentary was produced by the popular street artist referred to as Banksy. Despite his popularity, Banksy has maintained a cloak of anonymity since his start as a graffiti artist. His works are politically-charged, meant to shock and awe his population–and he has has achieved just that. Arguably the most controversial street artist in the world, Banksy has developed an entire art subculture devoted to his works. Doing so, he gained the attention of Thierry Guetta, a French videographer that filmed street artists through the 2000s. Guetta was originally the producer for a documentary about Banksy, but instead, used his time with Banksy to develop his footing in the street art world. Banksy became aware of Guetta’s illegitimate intentions, as the focus of the film shifted further away from Banksy and more towards Guetta’s up and coming profile, as he picked up the name Mr. Brainwash. Banksy then turned the camera around to make a statement about authenticity and art.
Upon researching these two artists, I’ve seen the similarities between the style and images they both express. In specific pieces, you will notice almost identical elements. Like Banksy, I hope to make my own statement about authenticity within the two terms of plagiarism and intertextuality. Plagiarism is defined as the close imitation and publication of another author’s work, ideas, or expressions and representing them as your own. Intertextuality is defined as the shaping of one text’s meaning through other texts, either through referencing or by borrowing and transforming that work into something different.
But looking at these two definitions, how different are plagiarism and intertextuality in reality?
In modern times, most media (in all its forms) is a hybrid or replica of what has been before. With frankenstein-like efficiency, media is chopped up from all eras, blended together to make something new–all while paying homage to the narrative which informed it. And as this cycle continues, art, at it’s finest, is retouched, reproduced, and referenced or plagiarized. At time progresses, the line between derivative and simply copying has become more and more blurred, leading to the debate of inspirations versus imitation, while questioning the matters of the evolution art and the overall understanding in how old ideas drive new innovations.
Mr. Brainwash’s piece is called “Follow Your Dreams.” At first glance, you could almost pinpoint each idea he has plagiarized from other artists.
Two things seems to be certain. First, that change is inevitable. And second, that change polarizes people.
It has been said change takes a few years to come into its own. With the street art movement, we see that exactly to be the case. With teenagers finding ways to express themselves through vandalism, many took to the streets with cans of spray paint. Specifically, a group of artists called DryBreadZ crew, or DBZ, left their mark on many public spaces. This expression brought about attention from authorities, causing the members’ nights of creation to end in fleeing from their work at the sound of sirens. Current member Banksy, eighteen at the time, was stuck hiding behind a garbage truck one night. Left to memorize the stencil lettering on the side of the vehicle while he waited in silence for the flashing red and blue lights to retreat, it was then he discovered a faster way to paint. Intricate stencils to minimize time and overlap color marked his new graffiti type. The significance of this change to the street art scene has polarized many people, notoriously dubbed “The Banksy Effect.”
Most people need entry points to become comfortable with things that are new; and for millions of people, Banksy is the entry point they needed, in not only seeing art in a new way, but accepting art as a part of culture and daily life. Like many artists before him, such as Andy Warhol, Banksy nearly single handedly redefined what art is to a lot of people that probably never appreciated art. As an unabashed (and unapologetic) fan of Banksy, I view him as not only a primary figure in the street/urban art movement, but to contemporary art in general. Defined as being an iconoclast, Banksy became somewhat of an icon in society, emulating the level of Warhol’s imprint on people and the history of art. While other street artists such as Blek le Rat, Shepard Fairey, and Nick Walker were attributed for the creation of the movement, Banksy created the market. Without Banksy, other urban artists might have sold their pieces and might have had their work make it to galleries, but his movement brought rapid attention to street art, thus heightening the success of other artists in street art media.
Banksy created a new brainwave of artistic creation. But like all great artists, Banksy was inspired by those before him. Banksy began his graffiti art lifestyle by admiring the works of Blek Le Rat and Andy Warhol, often recycling their old ideas. The mark of Blek le Rat is a small rat made with stencils, very similar to the rats often illustrated by Banksy. He expands his paintings to focus around officers, serviceman, and other figures, to discover then that Blek le Rat has already done it in the past. We can say that Andy Warhol’s artworks influence Banksy’s art as well. In 2006, Banksy sold a painting of model Kate Moss, painted in the manner of the famous painting of Marilyn Monroe that Warhol made. He also made a reproduction on the canvas of the “Campbell’s” canned soup piece produced by Warhol in 1962. With such visual similarities, how was Banksy able to create these pieces and not be deemed a plagiarist? With that being said how could other copyists of Banksy, such as Mr. Brainwash, be dealt such harsh opinions?
“A good composer does not imitate; he steals,” Igor Stravinsky supposedly said. William Faulkner allegedly phrased it as, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Pablo Picasso put it most simply in his saying:
“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
The saying regularly inspires artists, thinkers, and students guilty of copying. Ironically, this statement inspired Banksy. For one piece, he carved this quote in stone, then crossing out Picasso’s name and carving in his own, as to make a statement about the quote. Along with this idea comes varying interpretations. “Steal” here doesn’t mean “plagiarize,” which I could agree does not turn anyone into a great artist. It explicitly doesn’t mean “copy” either.
So what’s left? Plenty.
The difference between copying and stealing is a matter of imitation versus inspiration. The distinction is intent. Imitation is laziness and refusal to accept your influences. The counter is inspiration–recognizing your influences and, in turn, creating something new through those ideas. Artists may add their own twist, substitute, or otherwise mashup existing work into new pieces.
Therefore, the phrase “great artists steal” is at its roots about finding inspiration in the works of others and using it as a starting point for an original creative output. So what makes this “stealing”?
Stealing has a sort of negative connotation when, in fact, it is just borrowing something. A weak imitation borders plagiarism when it reminds people of the superior original; instead, when truly transforming and elevating someone’s ideas, you change it with your own compelling ideas, thus taking ownership of that new idea. But in order to effectively break the rules, you must understand and appreciate them. After all, you are committing a grand heist, not a mugging.
There is honor among metaphorical thieves. Giving credit and having the right intentions is the difference between appropriation and influence and is necessary if you want to build your own ideas.
The most creative innovations are often new combinations of old ideas, Banksy’s career being exemplary of this. Often the word “evolution” is brought up in discussion of art movements. Picasso in his “Statement to Marius de Zaya 1923” spoke of the evolution of art:
“Variation does not mean evolution. If an artist varies his mode of expression this only means that he has changed his manner of thinking, and in changing, it might be for the better or it might be for the worse. When I have found something to express, I have done it without thinking of the past or of the future. Whenever I had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I have felt it ought to be said. Different motives inevitably require different methods of expression. This does not imply either evolution or progress, but an adaption of the idea one wants to express and the means to express that idea. Arts of transition do not exist.”
Encompassing what Picasso said, I believe these trends in art occur naturally from the artists, on the basis of their own personal evolution. Dependent upon emotional and social influence, why and how an artist chooses to express a certain idea can change drastically from piece to piece. And if the history of art could be graphically represented, it would prove that in art there is no ascendant progress, but that it follows certain ups and downs that might occur at any time. The same occurs with the work of an individual artist;
Art does not evolve by itself, the ideas of people change and with them their mode of expression. (Picasso)
Relating this to the conversation of plagiarism, it broadens the understanding in how even the most creative of innovations are often just new combinations of old ideas. It is almost impossible to have come up with something that hasn’t been done before when analyzing the grand scheme of humanity and the ideas that have been presented to the world.
The greatest ideas are iterated, not originated.
I hope my statement about art and authenticity speaks to you as much as someone who has a bigger voice would speak to many. By singling out where each piece came from in Mr. Brainwash’s artwork and then further expanding on those pieces to include their influences, I wanted to draw attention to the importance of inspiration. And in turn, wanted to highlight the differences of how each artist portrayed their influences to either adapt an idea to become their own or simply copy without attribution. Similar to the way these artists change style, emulate their predecessors, or infringe other artist’s ideas, the authenticity of street art manifests itself through changes to the methods of perception of the immediate vicinity of artworks.
At the end the documentary, in Banksy’s last interview, he mentions one of the consequences of then placing value on inauthentic art and its influences on other artists. Because of the modern standards for art evaluation, people like Mr. Brainwash stifle the creativity and motivation of other artists because they rise so quickly, and yet, their art is not authentic. This in turn caused Banksy to question the own authenticity of his artwork and now no longer encourages other artists.
However, this somewhat disappointing end does not denounce from the importance of the issues Banksy raises, that I resound. He has influenced us to consider the means in which we call a piece of art authentic and how that affects the livelihoods of other artists. In an increasingly changing fine arts culture, where it seems as though artists learn the rules to break them, it is becoming more and more important for us to assess our standards for art evaluation, especially in the context of our quest for authenticity.
This assessment may well affect the vitality of street artists — and all artists — for decades to come.
For my own personal “plagiarism,” I sought to copy these artists I greatly admire. Using different methods and sources, I created 3 pieces and enjoyed every moment of it.
Banksy and Blek le Rat both were fascinated with the subject of rats and used them in a lot of their artwork. While Banksy got his idea from Blek le Rat, I got my inspiration from the piece “If If Graffiti Changed Anything — It Would be Illegal.” I decided to change the color and positioning for the two pieces I created off his idea and even looked at other art to gather inspiration from. I used Banksy’s method of layering stencils as well as free hand graffiti and painting for some detailing. The stenciling took the longest because it is so detail-oriented at such a small scale. I originally messed up the first piece, pictured on the right because you can see where I placed my stencil. For my next piece I found a way to cover everything.
My final and favorite piece is my own personal spin on the infamous pop art portrait of Marilyn Monroe. One of my favorite techniques and I love to use bright pigments and allow the colors to flow together, almost messily. While I did not copy the method in which the other artists used, I was inspired by the coloration and their subject.
Bradshaw, Peter. “Exit Through the Gift Shop : Film Review.” The Guardian. March 04, 2010. Accessed March 27, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/mar/04/exit-through-the-gift-shop-review.
Douglas, Nick. “An Artist Explains What “Great Artists Steal” Really Means.” Lifehacker. September 26, 2017. Accessed March 27, 2018. https://lifehacker.com/an-artist-explains-what-great-artists-steal-really-me-1818808264.
Marc. “The “Banksy Effect”.” Wooster Collective. Accessed March 27, 2018. http://www.woostercollective.com/post/the-banksy-effect.
NA. “A Pop Culture Debate: Plagiarism or Intertextuality?” One Small Seed. December 21, 2011. Accessed March 27, 2018. http://www.onesmallseed.com/2011/12/issue-24-taster-mr-brainwash/.
NA. “Banksy’s Inspirations.” Banksy. Accessed March 27, 2018. http://www.artbanksy.com/inspirations.html.
Schindlmayr, Kai. “About Banksy Biography.” Street Art Bio | Street Artists Biographies. Accessed March 27, 2018. http://www.streetartbio.com/banksy.