A documentary about the street artist in the big city becomes an inquiry into the meaning of art, Jay Stone writes
Banksy Does New York
Featuring: The works of Banksy, the residents of New York City
Directed by: Chris Moukarbel
Running time: 80 minutes
By Jay Stone
In 2013, the English street artist known as Banksy went to New York City for a month-long adventure in modern art. Every day, Banksy — who has somehow maintained his anonymity in an age of cell phones, social media, and a general tendency for everyone to stick their nose into everyone else’s business — would create a different work and put it in a public place.
Sometimes it would be graffiti on the side of a building showing, say, a fire hydrant saying to a dog, “You complete me.” Another day it might be a truck stuffed with toy animals, driving around to local butcher shops. Another time, Banksy sold his works in Central Park for $60 each. Just a few people bought one because there was no indication that they were originals worth $250,000 apiece.
Banksy is the merry prankster of modern art, and his New York sojourn became a piece of performance art on its own. He brought three key elements — art, fame and money — and New Yorkers reacted in a variety of ways. Some became “Banksy hunters,” searching that day’s work and photographing it. Rival graffiti artists — people who used to be known as “vandals” in the earlier, easier days of art — spray-painted over his works in protest. Some people lifted Banksy’s works right off the walls and tried to sell them; there’s a dealer in Southampton who specializes in purloined Banksys. The police declared that whatever Banksy was doing, it was illegal and set out to arrest him.
In short, it became a kind of loud inquiry into the meaning of art, a mass scavenger hunt that is captured in Banksy Does New York, a documentary with all the noise, mayhem, pandemonium and ingenuity of both the artist and the city that never sleeps, although it still manages to dream.
The film has the immediacy of a cell phone video, a mad chase from wall to wall following various Banksy hunters, art experts and journalists — not all of whom are smitten with Banksy’s artistic ideas — as they come to terms with just what is happening here. Director Chris Moukarbel allows it to unfold in all its ironic mayhem, sometimes interviewing participants about what they think Banksy (and the reaction to Bansky) means, and sometimes just turning his cameras on the chaos and letting us make up our own minds.
What does it signify, for instance, when a group of residents in a tough, poor area of the city cover the new Banksy on a crumbling wall and charge people $5 to see it? Is it mob rule or a commentary on gentrification? Michael Bloomberg, the mayor at the time, declares Banksy’s project to be just another assault on people’s property, but someone else points out that the cleaned-up New York subways now sport a different kind of “graffiti,” corporate advertising. Must art be sanctioned?
Unlike the 2010 film Exit Through The Gift Shop, which was (apparently) made by Banksy, Banksy Does New York is not itself a sanctioned project. It’s just a slice of life of a sort, a challenge to us to decide whether an artist can buy a $50 gift shop painting of a field, add the figure of a Nazi sitting on a bench, call it The Banality of The Banality of Evil, and have it accepted as an original piece.
He can, apparently, and the resulting work — which Banksy donated to a New York charity — fetched $615,000 at auction. And what makes it worth that much? And who’s to say?
Only one of Banksy’s art projects didn’t work. One of his works was to be a published essay about the new Freedom Tower in New York, but the New York Times turned it down. Banksy hates the tower; he wrote dismissively that it is so bad, it is “something that could be built in Canada.” Banksy can do Toronto without even coming here.