The ‘Banksy’ marchendise on the right is one of countless products in the Banksy range (hereinafter: ‘Banksies’), which are readily available to purchase ‘everywhere.’ The silhouette image of a girl drawn into the air by balloons, and dozens of other Banksy’s stencils graffiti images are offered for sale online (e.g. Amazon), in gift shops, pound shops and tourist markets. The scope of the range is really astounding. They are not only printed on posters, framed prints, and canvas, but also on mugs, T-shirts, fabric bags, scarves, greeting cards, placements and coasters, pins and badges, card holders, mobile phone cases, wallets, fridge magnets, cigarette lighters, lampshades, bumper stickers, stickers for computers, stickers for switch plugs, other stickers, playing cards, mouse pads (yes, they’re still making those, apparently), cufflinks, ready-made cupcake tops, flesh plugs (body piercing), babygrow bodysuits, pet clothing, military-style aluminium bead ‘dog-tags’ chains, and so on.
Other than noting how street art is being appropriated into profitable commodity, (and even more so, by others), and how clothing your cat and phone, and other (probably-made-in-China) short-living junk consumerist items stand in obvious opposition to the Banksy art — I want to discuss the mutidirectionality of meaning in the purchasing and performative use of radical symbols.
The above picture is a helpful beginning. It is a marketing image from Amazon of a vinyl wall sticker, where the product was photographed in a catalogue style at the centre of the composition, applied on a white wall in a carefully-designed white (or B&W) living room. The product is described as a ‘stunning escapism DIY art decor,’ which, in this aesthetic context, is a fair description of what the vinyl sticker does as a product, given that we cannot expect such marketing to add the word ‘tacky.’
Yet, what has made images like the girl-with-balloons famous, and then Banksy celebrated too, was not (only) the superhero aura of an anonymous-celebrity justice-pursuing pseudonymous artist who created it, but also the meaning the girl figure had in its original context where it was ‘placed;’ and which was made part of the text.
Now on the right is a photograph of the girl-with-balloons image appearing in its original context, painted on the Israeli wall in the West Bank. This is an 8 metre (26 ft) tall cement wall, which is part of a 700km (430mi) barrier built by the Israeli Ministry of Security mostly inside the Palestinian West Bank. This euphemistic ‘barrier’ appropriates lands and houses, and has many various far reaching adverse effects on the short and long term life, economy, and rights of Palestinians, both as individuals and as a political entity. Without getting into details. it is protecting and contributing to the expansion of Israeli settlements, in the name of ‘security.’ It also has clear detrimental aesthetic value to everyday life, which is also relevant for the discussion of the contribution of this particular street art.
The wall in the original work is not only a context. Like in other works of his, Banksy has made the wall a part of his text. The viewer is meant to notice the contrast of the naivety of a fictitious ‘classic’ generalised girl, who is about to (allegedly) overcome a cynical depressing and oppressing real man-made ugly barrier set up by a foreign military rule. The girl-with-baloons is a symbol with which we ‘read’ the wall. Thus, the piece is a message of hope and beauty as much as it is a message about their lacking, putting real life dystopia in tension with fantasy, which both expresses this thought figuratively, and imagines a radical alternative.
In the sticker application at the top image, on the other hand, the West-Bank wall is gone, the pessimist-optimist contrast is lost, and the powerful political message is lost even more. The wall, which was an eminent part of the text, as well as for what the text was reacting to, and what it was about, was essential for the bothersome intertextuality (which is also its contextuality), and its removal uproots the girl-with-balloons from its history, and sterilises its politicality. In fact, the girl-stencil is being depoliticised twice here: once in making this artwork into a leisure and fantasy, and again in turning it from street art into profitable consumer goods.
(By the way, the vinyl sticker in particular is a quasi-simulacrum of sorts, because its applicability to any surface can potentially create infinite new texts, and escapism is definitely one of them).
Still, I want to believe that consumers of Banksy’s art, or of its reproductions, are doing so exactly because they are often appreciative or fond of, or in general agreement with the subversiveness and radicalism; which are again twofold, both in the message they convey, and/or in sympathy with good civic street art (differentiating it from vandalism), as cultural alternative to elite or ‘high culture.’
If I am correct, then what makes this complicated is the way that Banksies as artifacts are simultaneously an appreciation of and sympathy for the message, and the reproduction of it; while at the same time are being consumed and used in a ways that are contradictory to that message. The result is a perpetuating celebration of the current state of capitalist and consumerist individualist subjects-making affairs that Banksy/Banksies is/are supposedly resisting. In other words, the very source of attraction to Banksies stands in absurd contrast to the Banksies cultures themselves. Banksy is consumed (in both meanings of the word) by the Banksies.
More identity commodities of the radical range
Now, Banksies are not alone. A range of a monochrome image of one famous photograph of the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara in beret (in itself a mythologising fashion that overlooks his controversial record) is very similar in its effect. A quick search shows that Guevara gadgets expand the Banksies range of ‘stuff’ (or junk) to at least sweatshirts, school bags, sponge and makeup bags, keyboard covers, iPad covers, guitar picks and straps, bandannas, rizla booklets, tobacco pouches, other pouches, wristbands, bottle openers, key rings, baby bibs, flags, action figures, and socks. Che also sometimes appears with the ideogram of a red five-pointed star (which is associated with socialism or communism), to which I will get later.
Again, the profit-derived and subjsect-performance consumerism of Guevara-goods, which are probably often also made in explicit conditions of exploitation in a third world setting, provides the owner of Guevaras the absurd ability to make individuality consumerist declarations of support for socialism, anti-Western independence/struggle, or at least social justice. Guevaras, like Banksies, implicate a sympathy to, if not desire for, radical change – yet through actions that at best do anything but promote it, and at worst condone, participate, practice, reproduce, habituate and construct the object of its own critique.
It is much easier to understand, for example, the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ junk-products range, which is normally sold in the UK alongside Ches and Banksies. This formatted slogan, which is a reproduction of an originally shelved WWII governmental poster addressing British civilians, is at least harmonious. The call for an undisturbed calm routine is complementary to the practice of producing, consuming and individualising, In fact, the revolutionary address would be the exact opposite: Don’t keep calm, and don’t carry on! (Of course, we must note that many of the different ‘takes’ on the original statement, which appropriate it in numerous ways, are humoristic, sarcastic or satirical too). Guevaras and Banksies, in contrast, are ways of producing and consuming goods, where the act of buying undermines their signified. In this way, Guevaras and Banksies are forms of disowned reproduced art dismantled of its radical charge, and sometimes of any political meaning altogether. Yet this message remains a source for their attraction at the same time.
Finally, let us consider the application of very word ‘revolution,’ and the socialist/communist star on goods and services. In the following gallery (click to enlarge) you will find them in several examples for the purpose of entertainment, marketing and branding. (Have more? send me).
(In addition to these. sometimes, products and businesses are not explicitly called revolution but give a ‘feel’ of radicality, or revolutionarism, again, as part of identity and marketing/consuming).
Now, what does it mean that revolution sells? i.e. that people buy these items, and take part in making something else of them. Doubtlessly, going to a particular bar, or purchasing a pair of bicycle of a certain make, has reasons other than the name, but that doesn’t mean the name is insignificant. I think that in the same way that it would have been meaningful if these products would have been rejected as unpatriotic communist symbols in the time of the cold war, or were not appearing in the first place; in the same way, it is equally not insignificant that ‘revolution ☆’ is the text. I.e. that certain British and American brands are naming and styling them in this way, as well as that they are popular enough to exist. I think that reading these in the level of subjected consciousness and rationality is insufficient. Like the wall in Banksy’s original girl-with-the-balloons, the social context is where these text have ‘naturally occurred,’ and they are reacting to something that must be part of the text.
So, is it that ‘revolution sells’ or that ‘revolution is for sale’ – or maybe for sell out? I mean, is it an indication of a popular wish for a radical change, or perhaps a compromised substitution/supplant for an unattainable one (i.e. an antiradical thinking)? (if so, Guevaras may be a form of nostalgic aggrandisement, which may indicate an acceptance of its irrecoverability). Or, is this a subversive action within the bounds of Capitalism, somewhat similar to how co-ops and mutuals do practice capitalism? (note that one of the selling brands is also co-op). Another option is that this is merely a yet-another fashionable sub-culture of identity statements and status symbols, where revolution is nothing more than the current ‘cool’ thing to have; (yet, if so, why this?). That is, that the purchasing of individual symbols of radicalism is either a placeholder or a replacement for the act of resistance, in disguise of radical action. In effect, the statement not only does not disturb the social, cultural and political order, but joins it/them.
Or maybe, as anthropologist David Graeber suggests, it is the expression of an aspiration to institutionalise a revolutionary moment (that hasn’t come):
The organisation of mass actions themselves – festivals of resistance, as they are often called – can be considered pragmatic experiments in whether it is indeed possible to institutionalise the experience of liberation, the giddy realignment of imaginative powers, everything that is most powerful in the experience of a successful spontaneous insurrection. Or if not to institutionalise it, perhaps, to produce it on call. (Revolution in Reverse, 2011)
Graeber notes a tension between the revolutionary (perhaps liminal) atmosphere/spirit/moment and the routinising everyday. I think that it needs to be expended to explore the desire to harmonise change without change. To have a non-disturbing revolution. A radical transformation that will ‘sort out’ the immoral in the current condition, without compromising or risking one’s current privileges. In other words, this is a bourgeoisie practice that uses and identifies with radically different socio-moral systems, which they wish to be able to be in, without applying or even risking any real change to their lifestyles.
This is resembling the way in which elite culture agents (I.e. artists of fine art) may perceive themselves as subversive, but, as Bourdieu shows, they continue to be hegemonic and elitist in their everyday. Respectfully, their art may sometimes seem resistant to the socio-political reality, but without waiving or avoiding elitist practices in distributing it, such as academic language, or museums gatekeepings, conferences, tours, etc.
Returning to popular radical symbols, though, this reminds me of the comfort justification systems that Fascinating Aida aptly identify amongst what they call ‘smoked salmon socialists’ in their Whites’ Blues:
Conclusively, I suggest that fear for one’s privileges is what allows certain powerful power systems, like Capitalism and Liberalism, but not only, to consume and subsume the resistance against them. For even allowing the resistance is part of the liberal ethos of ‘the extreme centre.’