Street Art and the Museum Revisited: Banksy on the Inside*

In November last year, I wrote about the exhibition, Street Art, at the Tate Modern in London. Artworks by street artists have been exhibited in commercial galleries on and off for many years, but this was the first time that a museum had showcased work by urban artists such as Blu, Nunca and Faile. After visiting the exhibition, I wrote about how I felt disappointed that the Tate had confined its exhibition of the works to the outer façade of the building. Although this provided the selected artists with a massive ‘canvas’ to work on, it also meant that when the exhibition ended, the works were buffed by the museum just as a council would buff these  works if they appeared on walls around a city.

Less than a year after the exhibition on the walls of the Tate Modern, street art has been brought into a museum space, and to an extent that I think it’s fair to say could not have been predicted. Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery has just opened its summer exhibition, Banksy versus Bristol Museum.

The title of the show acknowledges the tension that exists when street art is displayed indoors, or when works that some might say are best viewed in passing, on a street wall, are instead placed inside the rarefied space of a gallery. The exhibition’s context is implied as a contest, a struggle between Banksy, artist of and for the people, and all that is represented by a council-funded, conventional museum (and remember that Banksy once painted ‘Mind the crap’ on the steps of Tate Britain, in a nose-thumbing gesture at the hierarchies of art institutions).

To a certain extent that is all true: much ink has been spilt and many blog entries posted about whether street art ‘belongs’ indoors, and whether Banksy has ‘sold out’, and whether museums are being forced to ‘dumb down’ (for example, in the critical reactions to the New York Guggenheim’s Art of the Motorcycle exhibit’, or to the increasing tendency for bankable ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions on ‘safe’ topics such as ‘Impressionism’ to tour from museum to museum). No doubt some will make similar criticisms here of Banksy, the show, and the museum. (And there’s some worthwhile critical comment on the Indoor Street Art blog.)

But what’s left out of these criticisms is any acknowledgement of the value in staging an exhibition such as this – in bringing Banksy’s work not just ‘home’ to Bristol, but inside one of Bristol’s museums.

Banksy’s work has been in museums before, but in a very different way: in March 2005 he visited the Metropolitan Musuem, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Natural History in New York City and hung works on the walls, which were viewed by the museum’s visitors until noticed by security guards. In October 2003 he hung his own artwork in the Tate Britain and placed a fake piece of prehistoric rock art (showing a cave man pushing a supermarket shopping trolley) in the British Museum in May 2005.

It’s a long way from those outlaw actions to the current exhibition, and here’s where the show’s title, Banksy versus the Museum, is both accurate and misleading. Rather than being displayed in selected series of rooms, as would be the norm, these artworks have taken over the entire space of the Edwardian building. The show features not just sculptures and paintings, but also a series of large installations, including a recreation of the pet store set up in New York City last October.You can get a sense of what the show is like from the videos on the UK Street Art website, or have a look at this:

And so it really is as if Banksy has taken on and taken over the space of the museum – if there was a contest, then he is the victor. But of course what we are actually seeing is the product of a fantastic collaboration rather than a contest: a closely guarded secret, in which the museum closed down in order to allow the artist to set up his work throughout the galleries.

And so, in coming not just home but also inside the portals of the museum, does this mean Banksy has sold out in some way? I think not: the exhibition has actually been brought about in a manner that maintains many of the values of street art: while these are obviously not illicit artworks in any way, they have appeared before the public just as a work on a wall might do, the result of clandestine preparations and the efforts of an anonymous (well, sort of anonymous) individual. Just as the Cans Festival came as a fabulous surprise last year, the Bristol City Museum show provides a summer treat for those in the northern hemisphere. Not to be missed. Bristol? Wish I was there.

* Thanks to Peter, for suggesting the sub-title for this post.

3 comments so far

  1. SPARCS on

    I to think that banksy has NOT sold out. He seems to acknowledge strongly that street art is from the streets but quite modestly states that he just painted on other peoples stuff. Seemingly not of the school of thought that its all about “pissing on a tree”, making ones mark to take ownership of the space. Using the streets as just another place to put his works. The subversive and covert seems not to be his my prized aspect of the form.

    There is however a challenge in street art coming indoors, not because it doesn’t belong there (I would be lost with out my indoor work) but because we loose placement, context and juxtaposition. This is of course assuming that “on street” has this advantage all the time… it could be that placement is merely the product of a hidden spot or convenient ally way. I try to set my “on street” work in a comfortable spot.. but it doesn’t always work that way, so I would have to admit that it is a feature that could be absent with out the work failing

  2. virtualmark on

    Is it less about “selling out” “winners” “losers” than how the work is transformed by its context? Whatever it loses being moved indoors, doesn’t it also open up new possibilities?

  3. imagestoliveby on

    Couldn’t agree more, virtualmark. I think that the ‘selling out’ issue is just one of many raised by this exhibition, and in many ways it’s one of the least interesting. Much more fascinating, as you point out, are the issues regarding what possibilities might now exist as a result of this exhibition….

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