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Can We All Learn to Think Like Banksy?

Sep 30, 2011

One of the world's most recognizable and talked-about artists got his start by breaking the law. While we certainly can't condone the vandalism that characterizes much of his work, Banksy is nonetheless an innovative thinker who has managed to secure broad popularity, seemingly without even really trying. Is there anything we can learn from analyzing his success?

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By Sarah Wright

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Banksy's Style

Banksy's hallmark is taking images that are culturally familiar - policemen, street signs, barcodes, children and objects of war, for example - and presenting them in a way that takes advantage of irony and perception. At best, his work is funny, provoking, familiar and a little bit uncomfortable. Banksy is now world-famous, and his work sells for millions of dollars. In 2010, he directed a documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which had a huge audience and was nominated for multiple awards. What makes Banksy - the pseudonym for an increasingly visible British artist - so different from other street artists?

The most obvious answer is his popularity. A few other street artists, most notably Shepard Fairey, have gained notoriety, but few have had the wide-ranging success and recognition that Banksy and Fairey have. In the U.S., Fairey's work may be more recognizable thanks to his iconic image of President Barack Obama and the legal battle that accompanied it. But to boil it all down to popularity is reductive. There's a reason Banksy has reached a level of mainstream popularity and recognition that hasn't been seen in street art since Keith Haring.

What Banksy's Work Does

Ultimately, Banksy's work is clever, concise and impactful. His use of familiar images makes it easy for the average viewer to access the content of the work. But Banksy's work is never a matter of simple simulacrum. His works usually have some sort of twist that pulls viewers out of the comfort of seeing a recognizable image and into a more philosophical space that essentially forces viewers to think critically about what they're seeing in order to understand the work. This aspect alone would make him a controversial artist, but his chosen medium of buildings and streets has made it impossible to keep his work sealed up in the sterile environment of a museum or gallery.

Though Banksy's work can be cheeky and rebellious, like a crucified Jesus holding shopping bags or two uniformed male police officers passionately kissing, much of his output is subtle social commentary that makes use of visual irony. His use of irony can also be disturbing, such as his frequent mixing of weapons and children playing. But ultimately, his work exists to make a point, and to make us think. And Banksy is successful in part because of the way he guides viewers into critical thought without really asking their permission first.

What Can We Learn from Banksy?

We certainly can't condone students taking to the streets to vandalize public and private property - no matter how impressive your graffiti skills are. But there is something in Banksy's approach and success that can provide inspiration for students. What this artist's success proves is that creative thinking is valuable. The popularity and visibility of his work shows that the ability to make others think critically about the seemingly mundane aspects of their world is a welcome and appreciated skill.

There are other creative ways to draw attention to social ills. A group of students from Asbury University recently got creative in order to draw attention to the issue of human trafficking.

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