Sunday, 4 September 2011

The double-edged sword of controversy

Is there such a thing as bad publicity? The events of the last week have made me wonder. A video I shot has been widely watched but has three times as many 'dislikes' as 'likes'. Naturally I have to wonder, how did this happen?

Banksy mural 'Stop and Search' cut down and sat in a Bethlehem back-yard.

Late last year, I embarked on a project to document the journey of two Banksy murals from The West Bank to the UK and then to an exhibition in Long Island, New York.  They had been bought from Palestinian entrepreneurs by a partnership of two galleries, Keszler Gallery NY and London's Bankrobber, both of whom have previous experience of dealing with Banksy's uncertified street work.

Removing pieces of street art from original locations is something that infuriates their creators and I can completely understand why. Context is so much of this art form and not everything travels well. This is probably particularly true of Banksy's work and the removal of these two pieces from Bethlehem, and their subsequent exhibition for sale in Southampton, NY, has upset lots of people who would rather they had stayed where they were sprayed.

As a result, a short edit, that was used in the exhibition catalogue to give a sense of the journey the pieces had taken, is now being viewed by thousands of people every day. Which is good, I guess, but the small percentage who have expressed a view either way (173 out of 29,000+ views) have been nearly three times more likely to hate it!

Some of these votes will undoubtably be a protest at the act of removing the walls, some will be because they don't like the way I've filmed it.

The two gallery owners, who allowed me the access, have been widely vilified on the internet and come in for some pretty stern questioning in the international media.

However there are several important points which the critics of Keszler and Bankrobber have either overlooked or, perhaps, are unaware of.  And as an impartial observer I find it strange.

Firstly, the works had already been cut down long before either Bankrobber or Keszler had been offered them. Several attempts had been made by their owners to sell them. Approaches by dealers and galleries, and even an attempt to sell on eBay, had all run into the problem of how they could be physically moved. The larger piece 'Stop And Search' weighs 2.5 tons. 'Wet Dog' is 1.8 tons. They're not exactly the kind of things you FedEx.

Even the word 'entrepreneur' conjures entirely the wrong impression of those that sold the pieces. Palestine is under severe restrictions in what can and cannot be moved across the security wall, leaving the territory effectively annexed. My experience of the Middle East means that I understand a little of the economic hardship that everyday hard-working Palestinians have to confront in order to do business. Can anyone who lives in comfort and freedom really criticize those who sought to earn some money from selling these works? Well, of course not, which is why the hate is turned toward the dealers.

Secondly, though Banksy himself may not like this fact, his work consistently transcends that of his peers. It is sharper, better observed and more subversive than pretty much all of his contemporaries. Because of this, his contribution to art history is going to be very important, I suspect. His prints, whilst often extremely good and highly collectable, nonetheless, do not have the visceral edge of the street works. The very fact that he so frequently risks arrest to make these pieces imbues them with extra presence. The two Bethlehem works that had been cut down were hidden from public view for years, in very unsuitable conditions. When I first saw them, they had rudimentary protection from the elements, and certainly one of them was deteriorating rapidly. The other, though more solidly constructed, was clearly fading all the same despite being covered with a plastic sheet.

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, the people of Palestine, and particularly Bethlehem, are much more ambivalent about Banksy's works than you might expect. His politically-aware pieces on the dividing wall itself were extremely well timed visual barbs that helped to draw international attention to the controversy about the wall's construction. Most especially, amongst a section of the Western population, who might have had little knowledge or understanding of the issue, he brought awareness and curiosity, both of which are very good things. Several years later, few of these pieces survive, they have been painted over by Palestinian graffiti artists and political activists who have replaced them with their own authentic vision of what it is really like to live in a territory that is in enforced isolation. The taxi drivers who ferry tourists to and from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for massively inflated prices are only too happy to take the long route in order to show you a couple of Banksy works. For them, the visitor's interest means extra money. But for pretty much everyone else they are yet another sign of someone who came, admittedly in good faith and with the very best of intentions, and then left again while they for the most part cannot leave, cannot freely seek work, in many cases cannot even see their families who live only hundreds of yards away.

At a cafe in Bethlehem I asked about the general feeling towards Banksy's artworks around the West Bank. A polite, serious and well-educated man replied in perfect, heavily-accented English: "For him, I think it was good maybe to come and do these things.

"For us," he shrugged, "It's no difference."

This should not have been as illuminating for me as it was. Palestinian culture is complex, much more than the sum total of stone throwers, funeral processions, mourning mothers and burning flags that has become the newsreel shorthand for their struggle for a self-determining nation. I suspect Banksy himself might well have understood this when he made his paintings, but I think many of those who are angry about their removal are not quite as well versed in the subtleties of the region.

If Banksy was a Palestinian artist then it would be unthinkable for the works to be anywhere outside Palestine. But he is not. Those that chose to sell them certainly didn't feel as though they were parting with pieces of the national cultural heritage. 

So now what? They have been stablised, presented for exhibition, shipped to America and put on show. They have been danced around at a party, examined and, much to the chagrin of the gallery owners, touched. More people saw them in the opening weekend of the exhibition than in the last three or four years when they were living under plastic sheeting in a back yard.

Inevitably they will be sold, although when is anyone's guess. The person or institution that buys them will need to be well funded because you can't just put a two-ton piece of masonry in your average house!

It may seem a shame that they have not remained in their original context, but let us be as unsentimental about this as the people who lived with them. In one case, the building owner planned to cut a door though the middle of the work. In another, the wall, part of a disused bus shelter on wasteground, was crumbling even before the work was put up. 

Meanwhile, the video that I produced from some of the footage, has been used as part of the exhibition catalogue and subsequently to promote the exhibition. This will hopefully help me on the road to making the project into a more substantial documentary than it is currently. So yes, I hope to gain something too.

Banksy gifted the people of Palestine several of his artworks. Some remain, most do not. 

It is not for us to dictate what Palestinians choose to do with those gifts. 

•  •  •

Here is the catalogue video from my own hosting last week (a relatively paltry 582 hits!)

The original hosting (29,000 and counting) at Bankrobber's channel is here.


worksong said...

Brilliantly written commentary. Sheds more light on this interesting/odd artworld debacle than all the press combined, & presents an invaluable perspective.

Much appreciated.

Justin Sutcliffe said...

Worksong, thank you for your comment. I'm so pleased that it helped to give you the background of the story.

A lot has been written in both the conventional media and blogosphere that I felt was missing a few essential points. Which was the primary reason for this post so it's especially good to read that you found it informative.

Thanks for commenting and I hope that I continue to write posts that you find interesting.


Natasha Finkel said...

Justin, Banksy might have ended up getting kidnapped and his throat slit because he is not one of them if he were to have done this in Gaza. The Wall was only built to provide protection to Israelis because of suicide bombers and the fact that Palestinians will not recognize their neighbors and resort to terrorism. I see nothing wrong with appropriating Banksy's art from the West Bank as the Palestinians deserve a right to earn a living and when it's a situation of their government simply stealing the people's aid money. Plus you preserved valuable art that would have been laid to waste!

Justin Sutcliffe said...


Thank you for reading my post and commenting upon it.

As you no doubt realise, I was primarily addressing the criticism about removal of street art and the outrage it has caused in a small section of society. It was certainly not my intention to be partisan in any political sense as it runs counter to my journalistic instincts.

I deeply appreciate the fact that you took the time to share your perspective.

Thank you.


blackartbox said...

Justin, Great article!

Justin Sutcliffe said...

Blackartbox, thank you. Very pleased you enjoyed reading it. There'll be more to come on this subject undoubtedly.

In the meantime, I much appreciate the feedback.