we’re reading a book this week by hebdige on subcultures in the 50s and 60s, mostly ‘punk’ or some derivative of it, and how they used style to make a statement.
there are rastafarians, teddy boys, mods and rockers, beats, skinheads and punks, all using style as a form of resistance, using the potentials of style to transform objects from regular old signs to signifiers – like paperclips, for example, which are usually pretty straightforward (they clip papers together) that are pinned to their clothes or worn as earrings; or rastafarians wearing the colors of the ethiopian flag. hebdige is mostly interested in those things, the little, mundane stuff that gets flipped upside down and elicits responses of shock and disapproval by the oppressor or conservative observer. it’s also a style that’s tied to some form of art – literature or music – a whole package symbolizing the revolt, the response, resistance. and while they are small gestures that may seem insignificant and scattered – a paperclip in a punk’s ear, a vaseline tube in a gay guy’s pocket, a phrase graffiti’d on a bank wall – clusters of them together form an overall style, a significant statement of a distinctive and unmistakable presence. the teddy boys are identifiable by their popped collar suits, the rastas by the flag colors, the beats by their weed and jazz, the punks by their hair, the skinheads by their lack thereof. it all comes to mean something, to signify some kind of solidarity and group consciousness. the little, once superficial things are now of utmost importance. every detail counts. every stylistic decision becomes an opportunity to say something.
banksy is similar, i think. maybe not in the same sense, but they do have a significant style, and their resistance is threefold. resistance in the form of presence – ‘your presence on their Presence’, and that former presence’s power to disfigure the latter’s; resistance in the form of anonymity; and resistance of the system – functioning outside regular, ‘legitimate’ forms of production and exhibition. no one knows who banksy is, and that’s part of their style. they’re just banksy. they’re their art, and their style is so significant, it doesn’t even need a signature. you know a banksy when you see one. and the wall it’s been painted on ceases to just be a wall – it’s now the canvas for a banksy.
but banksy also fits in discussions of what is considered avant-garde art. the anonymity and use of social media shows signs of it, but there’s also the notion of barriers being broken down, of art that’s been liberated from the institutions that it’s become so closely associated with, of the subtle infusion of art – real art, art approaching truth – into everyday life. in addition to that, there’s the politics. many banksy pieces have a clear-cut political message, like the historical palestine poster. what’s more is the twofold urgency factor – the pieces address urgent matters in an urgent manner, in an image on a street corner that can be absorbed instantly. you’re on your way to work an bam! it’s in your face. you can’t help but see it.
unless you got a very badly timed text.