While not planned, I recently had the privilege of visiting two exhibits of artists known as much for being destructive as creative: the British street artist, Banksy, and the Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei.
Many are familiar with Banksy, who, through his street art, has vandalized walls, billboards, subway cars, and so on—which by its very nature has a destructive edge. But of course, at the same time, Banksy is highly creative, and challenges, to their core, contemporary understandings of governance, political violence, immigration, capitalism, and my favorite, consumerism.
In the exhibit, Banksy: Genius or Vandal, curators begin with some of his street art, including several pieces making fun of our idolatry of stuff. In one piece, hunter-gatherers are hunting empty shopping carts; in another, a woman falls to her doom with her cart full of stuff—conveying the hopelessness that he best communicates in this quote: “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go on shopping to console ourselves.”
But as Banksy became more famous/infamous, he became bolder and farther reaching (as well as more constructive). In 2015, he invited 60 artists to co-create Dismaland, a “Bemusement Park” that criticizes our “Amusing Ourselves to Death” culture. Here he and his co-conspirators explored pollution, abuse of animals for entertainment, free speech, refugee rights, all while at a meta-level, perhaps accidentally, revealing our obsessive desire for novelty—as people crashed the Dismaland website in hopes of getting tickets.
Yet even at his most destructive, Banksy ends up being creative. In 2018, he auctioned off one of his early prints, which as soon as it was sold, proceeded to shred itself, once again making a profound statement on the absurdity of art, ownership, and value (the print sold for a million pounds and is expected to sell for between 4-6 million pounds when it goes to auction again next month).*
Of course, if Banksy weren’t famous, would what he does be seen as art or just vandalism? For example, during COVID, he tagged the London Underground with rats sneezing and making parachutes out of medical masks. Hilarious and totally Banksy—but if a no name street artist had done that, would it have been celebrated? (In either case, the London authority cleaned it up as the work violated its anti-graffiti policy.)
As Banksy notes, “if graffiti changed anything—it would be illegal,” which of course it is. Producing art that one knows is transitory, with no expectation of reward (at least not financial) but only punishment enables a willingness to be critical of society to a degree that art-for-sale rarely possesses.
Aye! Wei Wei
That brings us to Ai Wei Wei, and his exhibit Tradition and Dissent. Known for his many fascinating works of art (such as crafting 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds and spreading them across the Tate), Ai has participated in his share of destruction as well. Most striking, in 1995, he dropped a 2,000 year old Han Dynasty vase to the ground where it shattered. Imagine letting fall your favorite plate or mug—one with no value but to you—I bet you’d be sad. Now instead imagine letting drop a priceless artifact as old as Jesus. On purpose!**
But through that act of destruction, Ai draws attention to the vast, unthinking amounts of destruction that the Chinese government conducted as they smashed up history to modernize China (whether buildings or entire regions such as when building the Three Gorges Dam, which alone flooded or partially flooded 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages, not to mention countless plants and animals).
So while destructive to the core, this one act became a creative way to draw attention to the accelerated destruction as China “developed”—played out in years instead of decades or centuries (as in the case of the United States or Europe), or in the case of the vase, in less than a second.***
Recognizing the Value
There are layers upon layers of value in art—in challenging us to think differently; to step out of our comfort zone, to draw attention to injustice and our self-destructive stupidity. And defiant art has the ability to do all this to a higher degree. But perhaps there is one zone where it has been underutilized: that is to draw attention to our deep connection to the Earth. It’s one thing to reveal through creative means environmental destruction (of which countless examples abound). It’s another thing entirely to reveal our utter dependence (and the sustained or even growing ignorance of this dependence). Could artistic geniuses like Ai Weiwei and Banksy, or others, find ways to draw out and communicate that dependence? Could street art and vandalism help achieve this? How?
*It sure would be funny if it then dissolved into nothing through the release of acid capsules in the frame, reducing its value to zero—and thus offering a foil to the stock market and, quite probably, capitalism writ large.
**Ai also covered another Han Dynasty Vase with the Coca-Cola logo, demonstrating how nearly everything can be commodified.
***I would note that there has to be a line. Destroying a vase is one thing. Killing an endangered animal, or perhaps the last of a species, to make it into a coat or meal—all as part of an ironic artistic expression criticizing humanity’s unthinking destruction—would not be ok (even if critics praised it as a bold artistic endeavor, which I admit, they might).