On a recent excursion to Notting Hill in London, I stopped in a shop where, I’d been told, they sell lots of cool Banksy t-shirts. Banksy has become quite a phenomenon worldwide, particularly after his “Girl With Balloon,” up for auction at Sotheby’s in London, shredded itself in front of the astonished auctioneer and bidders. Before that moment, Banksy was certainly famous for his counter-cultural street art, but he wasn’t a household name. After the Sotheby’s shredding caper, videos of the event blew up the Internet. Suddenly Banksy was a global mass-market brand.
Now, what’s a major brand without t-shirts? In one of my earlier blog posts, I wrote about the temptation to announce our ideological leanings by means of t-shirts and lawn signs—without engaging deeply or meaningfully with the cause in question. Banksy presents a particularly interesting case study in this regard because he isn’t so much a cause as an attitude—but his subversive images and epigrams targeting social injustice make his art feel like a cause. For this reason, Banksy apparel functions like a Springsteen t-shirt crossed with a “Never Again” poster.
When I stepped into that shop, I was looking for one of Banksy’s classic images, like the flower thrower or the robot spray painting a barcode on a wall. And this store had it all, from a sweatshirt featuring Queen Victoria as a lesbian to a tank top with a gun-toting panda. In full disclosure, I should confess I don’t understand half of the references or meanings in Banksy’s images. For example, the shirt I chose shows one of the artist’s signature rats holding a sign reading “You Lie.” There may be an inside joke here, or it may simply be Banksy reminding us of our own pervasive bad faith. He’s known to rail against the concentration of wealth among corporations and a few individuals: Perhaps he’s calling out the mendacity implicit in building stratospheric wealth for oneself when there are so many problems to solve worldwide. Who knows. I figure most art collectors don’t understand what they buy anyway.
A Shirt That Cries “J’accuse!”
As we browsed, the proprietor asked if he could help. My wife, who always knows more about cultural phenomena than I do, engaged him in a lengthy conversation about Banksy’s real identity (the store manager claimed he’d figured it out), what his work signifies, and the friction between his supposedly counter-cultural art and the unavoidable reality that he’s a brilliant self-promoter. The proprietor looked like an ageing rock ‘n’ roller, with long, frizzy hair and silver earrings. He had the finely lined skin of a man who’d smoked too many cigarettes and delivered countless and agonizingly long guitar solos. It turned out that he was, in fact, only managing the t-shirt shop until he could form his next band, at which point it was bye-bye Banksy. This fellow was decidedly cynical about the patron artist of his establishment. He assured us that Sotheby’s and Banksy colluded on the shredding incident for publicity (how else could he have installed a shredder in a picture frame?). He went on to say that, while Banksy’s messages are compelling and meritorious, he doubted the artist’s sincerity based on the fact that so much effort went into creating buzz around his brand. What’s more, he said, after shredding the painting at Sotheby’s, Banksy was kind enough to re-certify the piece as authentic so it would retain its value. Banksy, the proprietor asserted with a wink and a show of yellow teeth, is as commercial as they come.
This disclosure presented me with the complication of a double-hypocrisy: I went in to buy a t-shirt by an artist whose messages I only vaguely understood but found alluring for the attitude they imparted; and Banksy him- or herself might be guilty of the additional insincerity of Barnum-like self-promotion to build his brand and even—gasp—get rich. As the conversation wore on, I could see my wife thinking hard about the proprietor’s claims. He appeared to be winning her over. I decided to peel off from the discussion so I could browse t-shirts without losing my enthusiasm for the artist. Feeling, perhaps, a little guilty for so willfully disregarding the deeper significance of Banksy’s selling out, I picked the “You Lie” t-shirt with its sneering rodent. Clutching my new purchase on the way out of the store, I decided I had made a moral decision in my selection. That little rat with his j’accuse attitude wasn’t just implicating the corporations or the plutocrats; it was calling out my moment of intellectual laziness, my easy hypocrisy. I consoled myself, though, that earnestness has its practical limits and clothing is sometimes just clothing.