“Banksy” is the pseudonym of a contemporary avant-garde street artist who has challenged the public with his provocative and often difficult to classify art. According to some, he is simply a vandal or “guerilla artist” (Mitchell, “Britain: The Strengths”). However, the acceptance of his work at venues as distinguished as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has placed him in the company of the artistic elite (Betbeze, “Banksy: A Postmodern Pioneer”). One piece in particular has gained quite a lot of attention recently. In his adaptation of “The Gleaners” by the French painter Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), Banksy seems to have done little more than damage. He has taken a copy of the original oil painting depicting three African-American peasant-workers picking wheat in a field and simply cut out one of the figures from the painting. Instead of laboring in the field, the revitalized worker reclines in the corner of the frame smoking a cigarette. Her legs dangle below the frame itself in defiance not only of the restraints put on her by the picture frame but of the artistic and social conventions of modernist culture.
In this paper I examine this work of Banksy by situating it within the much larger conversation about constructive postmodernism and what has come to be known as “culture jamming.” According to Betbeze, Banksy exemplifies the cultural movement of postmodernism by subverting the conventions of modernist aesthetics (“Banksy: A Postmodern Pioneer”). In the painting in question, he has taken a quaint and seemingly harmless depiction of pastoral life and subverted the class hierarchy which it reinforces by doing violence to the image itself. Adding nothing, he simply has ripped the disenfranchised worker out of the system of values which has placed her in servitude. Newly restored in the lower right-hand corner, she now enjoys the same leisure which onlookers of the nineteenth century enjoyed when beholding Millet’s original. She has miraculously been transformed into a member of the leisured elite by an act of violence similar to the revolutionary changes which have brought about racial equality in the time since Millet.
Banksy’s painting is therefore at once a critical encounter with the past as well as a violent act of interpretation which subverts the very past he depicts. Betbeze believes that Banksy represents the movement of postmodernism not only for his subversive exegesis but also for the stance he takes on his own role as author (“Banksy: A Postmodern Pioneer”). As she says, by leaving his own identity anonymous, Banksy remains a mystery (“Banksy: A Postmodern Pioneer”). His identity as the “author” of this work is therefore, like postmodernism itself, a matter of perspective. Not only does he subvert the social order of the nineteenth century, but his identity as artist also dissolves, just as the world he deconstructs, into irrelevance. It was Michel Foucault’s belief that the concept of “authorship” was a limiting concept introduced in order to restrict the infinite proliferation of meaning in the world (119). There is no natural restriction on what the imagination can invent in works of fiction. The idea of authorship was, according to Foucault, invented in order to place artificial limitations on the frightful accumulation of fiction by consolidating various works of literature under a single name (119). Insofar as the identity of the artist known as “Banksy” continues to go unknown by the larger public, his works cannot effectively be brought under the authorship of any known individual.
The work of Banksy is therefore a deconstruction of the social values and aesthetic norms of modernist Europe as well as a critical encounter with the concept of the author. Another interesting feature of the work in question is the leisured stance of the reconstructed worker. Scenes of peasants – often from the lowest classes of agrarian society – were a common feature of nineteenth-century art. The onlooker gazed upon the toil of peasants as at a distant curiosity. The concept of “disinterested” reflection set the beholder infinitely away from the object of his contemplation. The artistic standard of beauty in the nineteenth century was nature. It was believed that the more accurately the painter depicted nature, the more perfectly he accomplished his task. In the case of Millet’s painting, “The Gleaners,” the peasant workers fade into the field. They appear no different than their surroundings. They are integrated seamlessly into the natural world they labor in while the artist sets himself ostentatiously above and beyond this world as both spectator and creator. The artist hardly differs from patrician or overlord in his reinforcement of the social hierarchies of the day.
The peasant workers in Millet’s painting are therefore considered as much a part of nature as the wheat they pick. Banksy puts himself in dialogue with these themes by ripping one of the peasant workers outside of her natural surroundings. Rather than accurately depicting nature as good painters in the nineteenth century were supposed to do, Banksy destroys the very “natural order” which subjected peasants to objects of disinterested contemplation. The peasant worker now reclines, staring off into the distance with a cigarette in her hand. She has taken the place of the leisured onlooker by stepping not only outside of her “natural” surroundings but also outside of the artistic conventions which limited her to the fields. You could say that, insofar as the author of the work – “Banksy” – has disappeared, the field worker has replaced him. Perhaps she stepped outside of the canvass of her own volition. Newly enfranchised, she is no longer the object of someone else’s reflection. She has now taken the active role. It is she who gazes upon us. By a series of reversals Banksy has therefore subverted the old world-order; he has transformed the peasant-object into an active subject; and he has transubstantiated himself as anonymous artist into the peasant.
A gaping hole is left in the painting. Behind it you can see the bare wall on which the painting hangs. This, too, must be integrated into our interpretation of the painting. By exposing the material elements involved in the presentation of the work – the wall and fraying canvass – Banksy also breaks down the representational aura surrounding the work of art. A painting is an emergent property. It is more than the sum of its parts. Somehow it transcends the mere combination of canvass, oils, colors and light. A painting is a totality. By exposing the materiality of the painting, Banksy breaks this totality down and therefore challenges the very idea of art as representation (Sturken, 12). Somehow you get the sense that it is just a combination of materials expertly assembled to produce an outstandingly artificial affect. But at the same time that he breaks down the representational function of art, he also aestheticizes mere material. The texture of the wall, the fraying canvass, the shadow left in the absence of the disobedient peasant – it all contributes to a general aesthetic impression. We are left with the sense that the mysterious relationship between signifier and signified, between hunk of marble and David, between ink and words, between nature and meaning has been torn apart.
Banksy’s work therefore enacts a critical but also creative encounter with the modernist art of the nineteenth century. Unlike Millet’s painting, Banksy’s shows us that art can create something when it destroys. By destroying himself as artist, he has created the peasant as leisured onlooker. By destroying the canvass, he has created a new kind of art which challenges the representational function of visual art. By destroying the social and aesthetic conventions of the past, he has created new conventions in which we are forced to question the relationship between artwork, artist and world.
Betbeze, Brittney. “Banksy: A Postmodern Pioneer.” Blast Magazine: Video Game Reviews,
Music, Movies, TV, Gen-Y Issues. 2006-2014. Web. 29 November, 2014.
Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
Mitchell, Paul. “Britain: The Strengths and Limitations of Banksy’s ‘Guerrilla Art.” World
Socialist Web Site. 10 September, 2009. Web, 29 November, 2014.
Sturken, Marita, Lisa Cartwright, and Marta Sturken. Practices of looking: An introduction to
visual culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.