October 2013 was Banksy month in New York City. The subversive British street artist announced that he’d unveil a new work of art somewhere in the five boroughs for each day of the month. So New York, New York, would become an even more of a helluva town. The Bronx is up, and the Battery down, with the people finding Banksy’s handiwork all around.
Chris Moukarbel’s energetic-to-the-point-of-hectic “Banksy Does New York” looks at those people searching for the art, looking at and reacting to it, and, in several instances, walking away with it. That emphasis makes sense. Banksy’s art without an audience (and its surprise, delight, outrage, and not-infrequent obliviousness) is a much-diminished thing, like a statue without a plinth.
The documentary airs Monday on HBO at 9 p.m.
“Banksy Does New York” is much more about New York than about Banksy. He maintains the guerrilla-prankster anonymity that has been central to his career; and though he’s thanked in the credits, he wasn’t involved in making the film. “Banksy Does New York” isn’t at all like “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the hilarious and shrewd Banksy-directed documentary from 2010.
Each morning Banksy would post on Instagram a photograph of that day’s work, along with a mock-serious “audioguide” intoned by a pompous-sounding expert. The guides can be very funny. The first one called the artist “Bansky.” That makes him sound like a Russian anarchist, which isn’t that much of a reach.
Banksy would post image and audio, but not location. Finding the art was up to a growing population of Banksy hunters. Like art-world storm chasers, they’d rush off to track down the works. “It was like a giant scavenger hunt in New York,” one of them says. The hunters provided a bit of street theater to go along with the street art.
Banksys showed up in every borough, even Staten Island (on Oct. 19, with an, ahem, ant hill vagina). There was a stone Sphinx, in Queens. A poster design for “Occupy! The Musical,” in Bushwick. A robot spray-painting a bar code, in Coney Island. A panel truck delivering “calm” (there was a tropical diorama inside). Another truck, called “Sirens of the Lambs,” carried a load of toy sheep, driven along a route of meat packers and butchers.
A Banksy backlash set in. Recurring news footage of bemused TV anchors is rather enchanting. An art critic for The New York Observer dismisses Banksy as kitschy and obvious. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, famously supportive of public art, is heard tut-tutting over vandalism. True enough, as someone else points out, Banksy’s a category of one. “When he vandalizes your property, the value goes up.”
The real issue here is money, and that’s where Banksy’s art is at its most subversive. A nondescript landscape painting he buys for $50 at a charity thrift shop returns as a donation a few days later. The canvas now has Banksy’s signature and a painted addition (of a figure in a Nazi uniform, no less). A few days later it’s auctioned off for $615,000. Another delayed-reaction Banksy takes the form of a cart selling souvenir art on upper Fifth Avenue, outside Central Park. The artworks, which go for $60 each, are by Banksy — though not billed as such. The first buyer, a woman who wants a couple for her children, negotiates a 50 percent discount. In the end, $420 worth are sold. Once Banksy reveals their provenance, each is estimated to be worth $250,000.
The documentary has its flaws: the flashiness of the editing, an overly insistent score, the sheer annoyingness of many of the talking heads. What is it about the contemporary art world that attracts such maddening people? There’s only one weak sequence. Moukarbel visits an art show in the Hamptons from last summer that includes the Banksy Sphinx (it’s one of the works that was grabbed by passersby). A grating cover version of “It’s My Party” plays on the soundtrack, and we see rich art consumers appraise the works on display. Banksy has already made the point multiple times about wealth, inequality, and economic/cultural grotesqueness, doing so with far more wit and imagination.
Banksy’s being British is an important part of both his art and his persona. It’s there in the furtiveness, the eccentric behavior, the often-acidulous humor. His taking up “residency” in New York makes absolute sense on one level. New York gave birth to graffiti, and where else is the street such a daily arena? Anonymous superheroes originated in New York. Really, isn’t Banksy an art-world equivalent of Spider-Man or Batman? Like them, he’s known only by his public-confounding deeds. Yet there’s also a sense in which Banksy fits in too well. He’s a classic New Yorker, all attitude and nose-thumbing. Instead of inciting a mob, he’s joining it. “Banksy Does New York” doubles as documentary and spiritual homecoming.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the person who said, “When he vandalizes your property, the value goes up” as a real estate developer.