A rebel, the graffiti artist known as Banksy, has many causes. His anti-establishment rhetoric seems intent on turning the minds of the populace against their officials both elected and appointed. But, Banksy as a non-conformist does not seek the conformation of his viewers to his view or any other. What he seeks and accomplishes is, rather, to disrupt the status quo.
The landscape graffiti included in Banksy: Wall and Piece, illustrates well the artists distaste for the status quo and the accompanying consumer mentality. Being informal and impermanent works, Banksy’s graffiti is not titled; it is only occasionally captioned in this book. The landscape I intend to explore in this article is the third panel on page 123. It is part of a series of photographs of Banksy’s graffiti featuring tourists and easily identifiable tourist destinations: the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge and Big Ben. Most interesting is a simple landscape photograph of a piece of country road that winds through a mountainous pass. A car is pulled over onto the shoulder of the road lower left of the frame. Across the road from the car an individual walks. The steep rocky walls of the pass are by no means the sublime height of the Rocky Mountains or of Yosemite. Still, hemmed in by green fresh foliage the walls have that loveliness sought by nature enthusiasts. Stenciled directly onto the rock face to the right is this: “This is not a photo opportunity.” But, of course, it is. The scene is typical of the kinds of things tourists and travelers photograph. A tourist might have shot this photo except that the stenciled message is there.
It seems clear that this is a statement against tourism. More accurately, it is a statement against consumerism. Ironically, perhaps not deliberately, this photograph is framed in such a way that it appears to be selling something. The longer you look, the more you realize your attention is being directed. But, is the focus meant to be on the car by the road side, the person walking on the opposite side, or might it be on a destination further up the road you are meant to be imagining? There is no new car, no sexy jogger, nor a ray of light pointing our way to a more favorable future down the road. Yet, instinctively the eye looks for these or something else that might be for sale, something it wants to consume. The eyes of some viewers will dismiss this work dissatisfied having not found anything to feed upon or to purchase.
The public appetite for beauty and art is often indiscriminant and overly casual in its selection. It also presumes that all interesting and beautiful things were created for the satisfaction of consumption. Malcolm Andrews notes an observation by Karen Knorr in his book Landscape and Western Art: “Viewers tend to devour images without digesting them” (2). Imagine finely dressed art patrons wandering like cattle through opulent rooms, grazing thoughtlessly upon works of art that have been rendered only through the intensive labor of the artists. The pleasure of viewing is experienced in moments before the viewer moves on to the next piece, without savoring, without “digesting”.
More than the money invested by tourists and the tourism industry it is likely this very herd-like mentality to which Banksy is most opposed and objects to when he scrawls, “This is not a photo opportunity,” on landmarks and public spaces (Banksy 123). But, is Banksy suggesting that we not enjoy and admire natural settings by snapping photos of landscapes? Do we debase the land by consuming or seeking to preserve our memory of the pleasure we found in the view? I think it is more complex than these questions.
The discussion of Malcolm Andrew’s first chapter presented in Landscape and Western Art concerning the nature of landscape is helpful in understanding what I believe Banksy means to communicate. “A landscape, cultivated or wild, is already artifice before it has become the subject of a work of art,” Andrews states as he opens the chapter (1). Landscape created out of the civilization of the human mind. He goes on to suggest that that every viewer of land will create a landscape or even a series of them without any formal thought about the act. The very idea that land can be viewed as a landscape is a result of this natural framing of the natural world the mind performs.
What viewers of landscapes are rarely cognizant of is their own role in the creation of a work art. What Banksy criticizes in his landscape graffiti, then, is the failure of individuals to recognize their potential to be more than consumers of beauty, to be, in fact, creators of beauty. Instead of being anti-tourist, or anti-consumer, Bansky’s graffiti might best be described as being humanist for he anticipates that we are each capable of more than consumption. Whatever reactions we may have to statements he makes, Banksy succeeds in raising questions about the validity of our acceptance of and our participation in the status quo.