On October 31st, HBO premiered the documentary Banksy Does New York. Similar to the kerfuffle over Banksy’s identity after the premiere of Exit Through the Gift Shop, this past week has seen “a revived interest” in knowing—once and for all?—just who they* really are (because “obviously” the identity of a public figure should be knowable, visible, and fixed). This time, however, the focus has largely been on determining Banksy’s gender:
ArtNetNews asked: Could Banksy Be a Woman?
New York Magazine provoked: People Dare to Imagine That Banksy, Like God, Is a Woman
The Gothamist announced: Extra, Extra: Is Banksy A Woman?
Wait. What? Let’s REWIND.
Last year, I posted a mini-rant in response to an article that called Faith47 and Aiko the “female Banksys.” The last time I checked, the general consensus was that Banksy was a gender normative white British dude (no one seems to care who they sleep with), an icon and standard-bearer for street artists. But then, on November 4th, this happened and sparked the various responses listed above. Capps’ article, Why Banksy Is (Probably) a Woman, was retweeted and shared all over my social media life, so (with a sigh) I gave it a gander. Now I tend to have a cranky, less than generous attitude about the street artist everyone loves (to hate?), but this shift has piqued my interest.** And with over 47,000 “shares”…it is safe to assume I am not alone.
Aside from the In search of a female Banksy article I just mentioned, there is at least one more recent article that I can recall (without doing any hard searching) that shares a similar argumentative thrust to displace the “boy” who currently represents the “boys club”-ness of street art and graffiti cultures (“10 Women Street Artists Who Are Better Than Banksy” By Priscilla Frank from this past September).
Where is this desire for Banksy to be a woman (or a team of artists directed by a woman) come from? And more importantly, how is the claim being made and what are the stakes of making it?
And I get it. I mean, as a feminist scholar—who has dedicated years to reading, thinking, and writing about graffiti writers who identify as women in a male-dominated subculture (I call them graff grrlz)—of COURSE it would be neat if Banksy identified as a woman, mainly because it would reveal the insidious and vast sexist and gender biased assumptions stimulating the (art) world’s notions about whose work is “great” enough to be chipped out of the side of a building and sold for millions of dollars.
But that’s just the “surface” potential. The real revolutionary potential of Banksy identifying as a woman would occur if it somehow undid or unmade the conventional Western gender binary grounding the narrative (Banksy is either a man/or a woman) and instead inspired a conversation about the way aesthetics, gender performance, and representation in anonymous street art trouble everything we think we know about subjectivity.
Whether or not the claim is “true” or not is of no concern to me; I like the Onion’s take, personally. And if you want to read some quick critiques of the Capps piece, just read the 115+ comments, some of which actually engage productively. I honestly don’t care who Banksy is…what bugs me is the possibility that people are reading the headline and then getting on board with the argument because it seems like the “feminist” or at best politically correct thing to do (oh how times have changed!) without questioning the frame of the argument.
And we can’t have that. I can’t have that. So, without further ado, I’d like to share a few brief thoughts (as brief as I could get them for a blog post):
Capps: “Part of what makes Banksy’s work so popular is that it doesn’t operate much like street art at all. […] Fairey and Invader started with the same strategy: to project themselves into public spaces by broadcasting themselves all over it.”
Munro: “It’s also worth noting that Banksy’s work occupies a strange cross section of fine art and street art, and it seems conceivable that such a unique position could be created by a woman, since women experience art, the world, and the art world in a dramatically different way than men do.”
The aesthetic of repetitive self-representation is a kind of sociopolitical practice of resistance rooted in Hip Hop graffiti art. Since contemporary street art is an undeniable direct descendant of Hip Hop graffiti, this aesthetic is most definitely an aspect of street artist’s work—it just looks different because the thing painted is not a name or a familiar character per se, but a way of painting that makes the artist “identifiable” to other street artists so that they can be given their street cred. Sure, we don’t see the word “Banksy” over and over again, but this does not mean that Banksy does not operate much like street art “at all,” what it means is that Banksy is not a graffiti writer…which we knew. What we also know about street art as a genre (similar to graffiti art), is that any writing/painting/pasting/chalking/knitting on public surfaces has been and continues to exploit and suffer from a love/hate relationship with the fine art world depending on what is in fashion at the time. Yes, women experience the art world in a dramatically different fashion than men do, but this line of argumentation about purpose and aesthetic tells us more about street art as a genre that has grown in distinction from graffiti art than it does about Banksy in terms of gender identity.
On gender performance:
Capps: “That ambition to control a public space through this sort of redundant branding, to make the street your own, is a masculine one—and it’s shared by the overwhelming majority of street artists. In the theater of the public square, graffiti is cousin to cat-calling—which Slate’s Dee Locket smartly explains as the constant effort by men to “create the illusion of dominance in shared public spaces,” specifically by claiming women’s private spaces as their own. Naturally, street art is at best delightful and at worst a nuisance, whereas cat-calling is an intolerable social problem and a legitimate threat to women’s safety. So any comparison between the two only goes so far.”
Davis: “Including images of women and not making every work a self-aggrandizing billboard? Yeah, no way Banksy is a dude.”
The characteristics or goals of masculinity are here defined as: having ambition, seeking control of public space, having a desire for ownership, self-aggrandizement, and claiming space. Supposedly, Banksy does not espouse these traits in their work…and so the logic goes: no masculinity, no man (must be woman?). But really, these traits and desires are not regulated to particular bodies (gender is NOT the property of a particular sex, Butler reminds!). Performing control or ambition might make you “masculine” in one context but it certainly does not have anything to do with how you identify sex or gender wise in another context—it’s a performance, it has a temporality, a fluidity, a specificity that should be appreciated. The bottom line here: if you are an artist doing work on the street you HAVE TO perform those characteristics. It’s a prerequisite of the job. It is also one of the enticements bringing people into the subculture: the chance to broadcast yourself in a world where you are ever invisible. [Oh and beyond saying graffiti IS ABSOLUTELY NOT A “COUSIN” TO CATCALLING, I’m not even going to attend to that bit. Capps himself says “any comparison only goes so far”…it actually doesn’t go anywhere to begin with.]
More on gender:
Capps: “The savvy manipulation of media to make viral art, to make art about virality, makes Banksy an innovator breaking out of a familiar form. In contemporary art today, that’s a feminine trait: The best selfie artists are women, for example. So are the artists leading the Post-Internet art world.”
Now this one is interesting because I myself have written about the use of, and liberatory potential in, the internet for contemporary graffiti artists who identify as women in a male-dominated subculture. The big difference is that I do not see the “savvy manipulation” of media as a “feminine” (by which Capps means female) trait…I see it as a generational shift within graffiti and street art culture that responds to the hypercriminalization of art in public spaces, the self-produced media-happy social context, and the existent and perpetual need to “get up.”
Capps: “Banksy’s work is different. Girls and women figure into Banksy’s stenciled figures, for starters, something that isn’t true of 99 percent of street art. Banksy’s work has always done more than project “Banksy” ad nauseum. […] Banksy’s graffiti understands and predicates a relationship between the viewer and the street, something that graffiti that merely shouts the artist’s name or icon over and over (and over and over) doesn’t do. […] Maybe it gives Banksy too much credit to say that her work shows a greater capacity for imagining being in someone else’s shoes. (It’s true of her themes of social justice, but it’s also formally true in the way her work anticipates interaction with the viewer.)”
Monroe: ‘Girls and women appear in many of Banksy’s stencils, which is atypical for street art (especially given that Banksy’s women aren’t presented in a sexualized manner).”
Above, on aesthetics, I contextualized the use of repetition but I didn’t write anything about the character of that repetition: it is a form of call and response, rooted in Afro-Caribbean diasporic cultural practice. Other artists, ideally, respond to the “shouting over and over”…over and over “ad nauseum” on purpose. The “difference” cited here is dependent upon not only a blind ignorance to the specifics of street art aesthetics and politics, but also to the sexist notion that “feminine” artists (by which he means women artists, again) are more empathetic and so their art is always for others—and that’s a positive attribute, right? (*side eye*) So, Banksy is not a man because they have the capacity for compassion? Claiming public space in an ambitious fashion (the charge made above by Capps) is not diametrically opposed to doing it for “good” reasons, reasons that have repercussions for a larger social justice purpose. A little education about the history of graffiti art will clear all of that up. I recently tweeted a teaser about a chapter, “Ways of Being Seen: Gender and/in the Writing on the Wall,” that I have forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art…that’d be a good place to start reading.
Speaking of a little education, in terms of how women and girls figure into the artwork: I have to wonder how much street art and graffiti the authors have actually seen? The underlying assumption here is that since women and girls figure into the work and are not hypersexualized, a woman must have painted them. Men would never ever care to represent girls and women in a nonsexual way…I know quite a few artists who would be rightfully offended by that statement. Not only is this a gross misrepresentation, but it also ironically pigeonholes women street artists to a kind of subject matter singularity: “women only paint women in appropriate ways and they do so for the betterment of the world, always.” Trust me when I tell you that street artists who identify as women paint everything and anything, just as street artists who identify as men do, including female characters—hypersexual or not!
A final note: IF the goal is to shift the conversation about art in the streets away from male bodies so as to make room for the women and LGBTQ artists commonly left out of the headlines, we need not rely on empty “girl power” rhetoric that ultimately depends on conventional heteropatriarchal ideologies. In other words, even if Banksy is “a woman,” I doubt they’d appreciate being “outed” as such because their oeuvre is somehow essentially “feminine” (sensitive to social and political issues, compassionate, nonsexual) and perceived as wholly “different” from the genre of street art, which is “normally” masculine (too ambitious, self centered, and domineering).
Besides, why waste our time obsessing over who Banksy is or isn’t when we could instead be focusing our attentions on The Women Tagging and Painting the Streets of Bogotá?
*I’m just going to use the gender-neutral pronouns they/them/their to refer to Banksy.
**When your research is on graffiti, more often than not friends/family/colleagues/strangers relate to that research by offering a story/opinion about Banksy. And, considering how many more street artists there are in this world doing AMAZING things, I am just SO over Banksy as icon. See? Cranky.