Banksy: Laugh Now (Museum of Contemporary Art-Amsterdam)

Hey guys!

Last weekend my parents visited me in Amsterdam, and I was so happy to take them around and show them all my favorite artistic spots. But I was even more happy to explore the Moco with them, because it opened only a few days before they arrived! The Moco (Museum of Contemporary Art)  is the latest addition to the bustling museums in Museumplein, such as the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk, and the Van Gogh Museum. It is also another in a continuing stream of museums around the world that devote themselves to late modern and contemporary art- a difficult feat, as museums are typically retrospective spaces in which temporality is presented chronologically. Museums have to adjust their historical perspective to allow contemporary works to be seen. I will save my discussion about the shift in museum culture for another day, but keep this in mind while I discuss the Banksy exhibit at the Moco.

Here is the exterior of this absolutely beautiful building.

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And here is the placard that hangs on the gate outside the museum. It is also repeated on merchandise throughout the museum shop. I bought a t-shirt with this phrase on it, and have been walking around feeling 75% cool and 25% obnoxious.

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The first work that caught my eye was The Key to Making Great Art (2004), made from spray paint on canvas.

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The Key to Making Great Art is a wonderful visual pun. The phrase on the canvas reads: “the key to making great art is all in the composition.” However, the layout of this phrase cuts off the word ‘composition,’ effectively enacting poor composition. It is a cheeky commentary on the rules of design. Who says what makes ‘great’ composition? And what happens when your composition doesn’t fit these standards?

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I also found Crude Oil Jerry (2004) very humorous.

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In this work, Banksy has taken an existing painting, likely purchased from a second-hand store, and painted over it the motif of Jerry from the children’s cartoon, Tom and Jerry. The original painting features an idyllic landscape. Houses are tucked away behind verdant trees and boats sit peacefully in the still water. The brushstrokes are light and frothy, lending this painting a gentle air. It looks like a painting by John Constable or one of the Hudson River School artists.  Cartoon Jerry, however, has been painted in thick, smooth slabs of paint. He sits on a tree branch in the foreground with a match and lighter fluid in his paws and a frighteningly enthusiastic smile on his face.

The juxtaposition of these two scenes is very funny for the viewer. It is not every day we see a pyromaniac cartoon character traipse over a beautiful landscape. But I believe Banksy was after something more than comedic anachronism. In painting over a traditional, existing work, Banksy makes a statement about the western art canon, and what we define as “traditional.” This statement is mirrored by the figure of Jerry starting a fire. When he drops the match, the landscape will go up in flames, consuming the little boat, the tiny houses, and all the green shrubs that are visual markers of an elitist, euro-centric art canon. These two acts: painting over an existing scene, and depicting the scene on the verge of destruction, very clearly articulate Banksy’s views on traditionalism and privilege. He obviously sees this impressionistic style of landscape painting as indicative of wealth and euro-centric traditionalism that he wishes to destroy with an image- Jerry- who is universally recognized and enjoyed. In this sense, Crude Oil Jerry is more accessible than the original painting.

While accessibility of the arts is one of my major interests (hence, the existence of Canvas And Crumpets), its focus in this work contradicts the prices of Banksy’s works and their presence in a museum that charges €12,50 for adults and €10,00 for students. Now, for Museumplein, that is not a steep fee. The Stedelijk next door charges €15,00 for adults. The Rijksmuseum charges €17,50. I understand that museums need to charge money because they need to pay their overhead costs- it is a business, after all. But all of that seems very contradictory to Banksy’s critique of the western art canon and inaccessibility in the art world… On the flip side, Banksy does need to make money too. Spray paint and rent money don’t fall from the sky. It is an interesting paradox. How can a street artist keep his cred when he goes global and starts making big money?

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This work is entitled Kids on Guns (2003).

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Here, Banksy uses spray paint on canvas to depict two small children standing on top of a mountain of guns. They seem blissfully ignorant of the ground beneath their feet. The little boy clutches a teddy bear. The girl holds a red balloon in the shape of a heart above their heads. The two look at each other. We cannot see what they are saying, or what their faces are revealing, because they are silhouetted against the white sky.

The depiction of children amongst firearms is a common trope used to make a statement about violence. Children represent innocence. They are a reminder that we were all once children, who didn’t believe in the causes that lead people to kill each other today. Children are not inherently racist, colonizing jerks driven by thirst for oil, and a simultaneous desire to keep those different from us, away. These are learned behaviors. Depicting children amongst firearms- reminders of the violence that plagues this planet- is a call for peace.

Seeing these two figures above the mountain of guns makes me feel like everything going on is, well, silly. Obviously police brutality, terrorism, and the aftermath of colonialism are nothing to laugh at. But when you see children amongst the mess, you start to wonder what the hell is wrong with all of us. How did we go from clutching teddy bears to holding guns?  Banksy seems to be asking the same question.

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In Four Monkeys (2001), Banksy utilizes his usual medium of choice-spray paint- to make yet another statement about society.

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This image recalls for me the image of the monkey, dressed in a vest, trained to play the cymbal in old Vaudeville acts and movies. They also used to make, and still make, toys commemorating this totally humane practice. Here’s a video, in case you never want to sleep again.

What this old practice points to is more than just animal cruelty. Mankind has always had a strange relationship with monkeys, perhaps because they are more similar to us than we care to think. When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, he was met with scorn by his fellow humans who believed they were too dignified to be at all related to such a primitive species. I find this rather funny, given that slavery and colonialism were paramount at the time of The Origin of Species’ publication. But that’s a separate rant.

Anyway, hearing that this ‘evil-lution’ business was proposing strong ties between man and monkey had a strange effect on people. They were eager to demonstrate just how stupid monkeys were, in order to separate themselves further from them. Thus, the monkey became a symbol of stupidity, simpleness, and primitivism. It was shown clapping a cymbal repeatedly, with a glazed look over its eyes, to prove to people that monkeys were only capable of simple tasks. (Unlike the human, who could enslave entire races of people. What a skill!)

What Banksy has done here, with Four Monkeys, is bring attention to the idea of human-supremism. These monkeys stand almost entirely upright. Their faces are turned down in a very human expression of sadness. The signs around their necks warn that their time in charge is coming. Even as someone who doesn’t think monkeys are stupid, that is a terrifying thought. After all, we have been raised to feel superior, because we are people, and have the most highly functioning brains of any species. With the exception of poaching laws in certain countries regarding endangered species, we kill all animals we deem tasty, dangerous, or inconvenient. We have assumed our role at the top of the food chain in an unsustainable way. The world is far too populated with humans to sustain us infinitely.

In Four Monkeys, Banksy reminds us that we are not the only beings on this planet smart enough to be ‘in charge.’ It is both frightening and humbling.

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Lastly, here is a photograph of Girl with a Balloon Diptych (2005). This motif, created from spray paint on canvas, is one of Banksy’s most iconic images.

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Here I am, attempting to imitate the pose of the little girl with the balloon. Unfortunately I’m squinting and look more like a terrible ballerina than the little girl in Girl with a Balloon Diptych. 

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The little girl here is mostly silhouetted, though we can see her hair blowing in the wind and the hint of an eye. She stretches one arm upwards towards her escaped balloon. It has blown so far away that it is on another canvas, threatening to leave it through the top-right corner. This girl does not really reach for the balloon. If she were, she would be on her tip-toes, jumping, both hands reaching towards the sky. Her posture is much more stoic. She stands upright, calmly lifting one arm towards her flyaway balloon.

Her attitude towards the balloon is much more relaxed than one would imagine for a small child. The way she stands firmly on her feet, gazing up at the sky, indicates that she has come to terms with the fact that her balloon is gone. But her outstretched left arm reveals that she will never lose hope. It is a kind of calm, constant, peaceful hope that I would not expect to see in a little girl. Perhaps that is the most pure kind of hope; unwavering faith despite the appearance of failure.

This little girl’s hope has a multiplicity of meanings, depending on who is looking at her. When I see her, I think about my life, and the calmness and openness I want to approach it with. When someone else sees her, they might feel hope for the entire future of mankind. I believe that Banksy intended for this multiplicity of meanings. I love art that takes into consideration the experience of the viewer. In fact, I think Girl with a Balloon Diptych needs a viewer’s interpretation to be complete. Banksy’s works don’t just hang on a wall. They are conversations with people.

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Now, I’d like to leave you with a few works that I won’t analyze. See if you can draw your own conclusions about these works from what we have been discussing about Banksy and your own observations.

Top Left: Bomb Hugger (Not dated)

Top Right: Keep It Real (2003)

Bottom: Tortoise Helmet (2009)

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Speaking of hope, I hope you enjoyed this post! And I hope all is well and that, wherever you are, it’s warmer than where I am. It’s 48 degrees and I am NOT happy about it. Good thing I spend 80% of my time in museums 😀

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

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