The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.
Play is dangerous. I’m remembering The Fight Club and how the film incorporates some aspects of a play revolution but mixed in with serious notions about masculinity and featuring graphic, bone-crunching violence. The Fight Club does a double reverse on conflict and fighting. No one wins each one-on-one fistfight. Men strive to fight off the emasculating pressures of rampant consumerism. It amps up their rebellious play to the level of violence. Frolic and playfulness are now cloaked in a violent search for authentic masculinity. Is that noncompetitive play? The movie, completed just a couple of years before 9/11, concludes with eerie prescience: the destruction of the skyscrapers of credit card companies. The enemy is not an economic system or tyrant or foreign power per se,it’s consumerism run amok.
But there are other ways to resist hyperbolic commerce and encroaching consumerism. The playful child and the Trickster show the way. Art is a means.
Banksy The Yippie Painter
Consider the following images: Monkeys with sandwich boards that say “Laugh now, one day we’ll be in charge.” Monkeys that upend an “intelligence test” in order to escape from it. Pretty little girls hugging bombs. Two English bobbies making out. A Royal Guard pissing on a wall. A Royal Guard drawing the sign for anarchy, . Armed riot police surreptitiously graffiti-painting the peace sign,, on a wall. Hip-hop rats carrying a boom box. Rats in tuxedos gracing a red carpet into their rat portal. Rats as the livers and totems of urban culture, absorbing “junk food waste, ambient radiation and hardcore urban rap music, these creatures have evolved at an unprecedented rate….one day they may be in charge.”3 An ATM machine spitting out cash. Fake English ten-pound notes with the motto “Trust no one.” Photo opportunity spots marked with “This is not a photo opportunity.” The Palestinian segregation wall adorned with pictures of natural beauty. A ladder that climbs up the Palestinian segregation wall.
The street artist covertly mounting art in the Louvre along with “the masters”: a Mona Lisa with a smiley face smile instead of Mona’s. Police restriction tape, spy cameras, and military helicopters on nineteenth-century classic pastoral oil paintings. More defaced nineteenth-century art: A naked baby Jesus with suicide bomb explosives taped around his belly. Mother Mary with an iPod.
A Burger King cardboard crown on the head of a starving African boy. The Queen of England with a gas mask on a postage stamp. Old folks lawn bowling with bombs. Armed riot cops with smiley faces. A little girl holding a portable TV set like it’s her favorite doll, on the screen is written “The End.”Winston Churchill with a green Mohawk punk haircut stenciled on the wall.
Banksy disruptively placed all of the above images in public. Banksy has much to say about the state of the world, and as an artist, much to say about art. Unlike the mass market forces that determine the success of music, movies, and novels, “The Art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit and decide the success of Art. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say. When you go to an Art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.”4 Thus, in this case, Trickster remains bound. dada is back in the museums. Banksy is emphasizing the critical need to challenge art.
Banksy, the celebrated twenty-first-century street artist, wages war on war, consumerism, and commerce through graphic satire. Playfulness energizes Banksy as he appropriates corporate logos, images of monkeys, of rats, and paints any public surface. He poses questions that bespeak the amorality of true tricksterism—we’re in this for a good laugh, and potentially raised consciousness.
And then he is co-opted by an intuitive wheeler-dealer. In true trickster fashion, Banksy is the butt of this joke, and he documents it brilliantly in his film Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Banksy’s work brings in millions . . . but transient street art lives on apart from commerce. Banksy mounted fake graffiti from the “Post-Catatonic” era: a primitive man rolling a shopping cart (with a bull from the cave paintings of Lascaux in the background) . . . sure, political, anticonsumerist, but in it for the laughs. The earliest art wasn’t art; it was graffiti.
We’ve seen that many individuals, fictional and real, Western and non-, can embody many Trickster characteristics. But any articulate and coherent social vision is not about celebrities, icons, or garden variety rogues and pranksters; it’s about entire populations coming to terms with Trickster in their own personalities and translating that into political and cultural action.
Thus Banksy, a collectively minded anonymous disruptive player, is anonymous in a way that invites people to identify with him (her?). And mass identification proceeds to mass movements, subversive and celebratory, all carnivalesque, that foretell the Play Society.
Banksy and Graffiti
In Banksy, we have an artist who stakes out high moral ground, yet embodies numerous Trickster characteristics of amorality. He works through perhaps the most disruptively playful medium, graffiti:
Graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Despite having to creep about at night and lie to your mum, it’s actually the most honest artform available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on some of the best walls a town has to offer, and nobody is put off by the price of admission. A wall has always been the best place to publish your work. The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit. But if you just value money then your opinion is worthless. . . . The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl their giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to answer back. Well, they started this fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.5
Graffiti is playful because the artist is here and gone, and in many cases, so is the art . . . temporality. Playful because it is whimsical. Disruptively playful because it breaks the rules of language, breaks the rules of public property propriety; playful because it mocks, and in the case of Banksy, playful because it is satire of the highest order. Sometimes Banksy is just in it for the laughs; frequently, Banksy is attacking war, sexism, consumerism, and apathy. A dada contradiction, his campaign against money and wealth and commerce has produced some of the most expensive contemporary works of art.
Banksy the subversive spars with art’s endemic commerce. Banksy correctly sees advertising as an invasion of our space taken without our permission. He sees defacing, mocking, appropriation, and satire of such as our right.
Any advert in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours . . . to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. You owe the companies nothing. You especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.6
We have drifted back and through the worlds of art and of politics. In most cases, we have examined artists like the dadas and the Beats who are able to connect the dots between what is artistically meaningful and what is politically just. We have examined political activists like the Yippies and Abbie Hoffman, and soon we’ll check out the Yes Men who make full use of artistic talents to inform their protest and their platform. And because creativity is a main character in all the above, so is play, and so there are openings for tricksters and tricksterism.
Banksy demonstrates that the dada truth—art can neutralize the commerce system designed to contain it—is a point worth making again. And that rebellion against said commerce system can be extrapolated to the political realms of capitalism, exploitation, imperialism . . . and war. Art, the trickster, and play are all, if nothing else, antiwar.
Read more and order Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture here.
1 Banksy, Wall and Piece(London: Century, 2005), 51.
2 The Fight Club, dir. David Fincher (Los Angeles, CA: Fox 2000 Pictures, 1999), film.
3 Banksy, Wall and Piece, 155.
4 Banksy, Wall and Piece, 144.
5 Banksy, Wall and Piece, 8.
6 Banksy, Wall and Piece, 160.