British “art terrorist” Banksy envisions a society in which art is no longer cloistered away in galleries and private collections, where it’s no longer whored out and sapped of vitality by commercial sponsors. Banksy imagines a city where art is smack in the middle of the public square, challenging citizens to confront injustices in the world around them.
Having first gained fame through his graffiti, Bansky has never given up the anti-elitist approach of his street-art roots. Art is irrelevant hidden away in a museum—to have an impact, it must be visible to a broad cross-section of society. When he’s not stenciling missile-hugging children on the streets of London, Bansky has made a trademark of very publicly sneaking his own work into closed gallery spaces. He’s smuggled paintings into the Tate, the British Museum, and four of the best museums in New York, and in 2004 he installed a dead rat wearing sunglasses in a display case in London’s Natural History Museum.
Taken alone, these pranks might make Banksy little more than the Ashton Kutcher of art. But he applies the same ingenuity and derring-do to his public social commentary around the world. He installed a four-ton statue of a whorish Lady Justice in a park in London to protest the British legal system. He put up four beautiful murals on the Palestinian side of the barrier dividing Israel and Palestine, drawing parallels between the Berlin Wall and Israel’s security fence. His critique of authority ranges from stencils of the Queen as a chimp to a meta-prank in which he put up an official-looking sign declaring a wall a “Licensed Graffiti Area,” inspiring local artists to fill the wall with tags. And while Nike has tried four times to sponsor his work, he’s consistently refused to take money from corporations he thinks are morally suspect.
George Orwell once said that it’s hardest to see the injustices that are right in front of you. Banky’s latest prank gets that message across beautifully: In HMVs across Britian, he’s replaced Paris Hilton’s CD with remixes called “What Have I Done?” and “What Am I For?” The most telling page of his reworked CD insert shows Paris climbing out of a white SUV next to a sleeping homeless man under the ironic legend “90% of Success is just Showing up.” Paris Hilton might seem like an obvious target, but Banky’s critique is spot on: He’s making fun of all of us by pointing out the way we focus on the absurd luxuries afforded to a singing heiress and ignore the social problems lying right at our feet.
Update: Banksy artwork goes up on Ebay and is quickly taken down.