Banksy’s realism has its origins in its unreality

Antonelli & Marziani

Banksy is a ghost: not the kind of ghost that haunts a castle or cemetery, but more of a glitch someone called to mind when we speak of a phantom limb (mind) or a ghost town (pandemic). Something that we experience in real life, but that we should not have experienced. Ghosts are something strange, something disconcerting. The properties of a ghost are also the properties of Banksy: the incorporeal presence, an appearance that can only be explained as a manifestation of the supernatural. 

His works are traces, and his images a descriptive compendium of an existential condition. Banksy’s ghostly nature places a strange condition before us: he acts both as the presence of something that is not there, and as the absence of something that should be there. Is this what Banksy is for us? And for art? Something that should have stayed hidden, but instead emerged? He maintains that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, and with this epigram he guides artistic action towards a single horizon: unease, a perception of the real and not a concept of transcendence or of the ideal. 

The sensation one has when engaging with Banksy is that of not knowing what to feel; so we smile, although in reality we do not exactly know what type of phenomenon we are dealing with. And this is precisely why it is crucial to study an artist like him, to understand the scope of what he does as an agent foretelling broader changes, because his work bears artistic witness to an increasingly pervasive sensation that involves us all… this dismay, and even this fear before a reality that can no longer be decoded using the keys handed down to us from the past. The way Banksy successfully presents us the consequences of the real might look like irony, but it is not. It is sarcasm, and the two terms are not to be confused. Irony is a defusing mechanism, while sarcasm comes from the Greek sarkàzein, which means “cutting flesh.”

The fact of the matter is that, on a daily basis, we are dealing with a strange world; we are crushed by anxiety, depression, phobias, social autism (inability to integrate the context), where a certain form of economics appears to have percolated into the lexicon of feelings and knowledge; one need only consider the concept of “emotional investment” that we evoke when describing a love affair, or of a student’s falling behind in school as a debtor might fall behind in paying his or her creditors.

Bernard Stiegler maintains that “our epoch is characterized by the seizure of the symbolic by industrial technology, where aesthetics has become both theatre and weapon in an economic war. This has resulted in a misery where conditioning substitutes for experience.” The symbolic misery the French philosopher speaks of is that caused by art’s withdrawal from the territory of representation, and in the final analysis from politics, leaving the field open for strategic marketing, for economic interest, for the profit principle. 

But who stole the future from Banksy, casting him into the most inescapable realism? According to Mark Fisher, it was Margaret Thatcher. The British Prime Minister who governed from 1979 to 1990, which is to say the years when Banksy was formed as an artist, secured her power through a political programme summed up by a slogan: “there is no alternative”  a slogan so successful that, in Western liberalism, other European groupings adopted it. In essence, an entire Western leadership class agreed that there was no alternative. All right, then, but what was there no alternative to? To the economic system, to capitalism. For Fisher, this is where the problem of the absence of the future a problem that darkened the years of Banksy’s training got its start. As we have written, conceiving utopia means conceiving the alternative to the real; but by the same token, discovering there are no alternatives means discovering there are no more possible utopias that is, the future can no longer act upon the present. The artist’s images, then, recount the present that is folded upon itself, in a Baroque movement to be interrupted with an idea. 

Banksy’s realism has its origins in its unreality. There is no alternative to capitalism, says Thatcher, and according to Fisher this idea is interiorized to the point that “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” as if capitalism were a state of nature, as if its limitlessness as a principle of human action were acceptable. And so now we find ourselves coming to terms with the end of the world. Reality is like that: it comes knocking at the door and threatens you with extinction. Realism is the discovery that reality does not need us, and that something outside is ready to sweep us away – the same outside that Banksy invites us to pursue with Better Out than In. The artist’s interpretative strength is not of capitalism, but in capitalism, and this is his principle of reality, his true image. The type of capitalist realism that Banksy interprets is speculative, in the true sense of the Latin speculum: a mirror. It is a realism that reflects itself, and the realism of the reflected act is what it consists of. This is why we will never experience Banksy but only the Banksy function, because we are not shown what it consists of; we are only allowed to believe, in ghosts, of course.