October 13, 2018

The Bedazzled Syndrome [May 21, 2007]

Administrator’s Note: Now that this infamous “outlaw artist (a gentleman by the name of Robin Cunningham) has been finally acepted within the Art World he once taunted with his anonymous graffiti and pranks, we were presented last week with a carefully hyped, and possibly collaboratively staged, “destruction” at auction of one of his pieces. The validated status of "Banksy" by Sotheby's as one who has cleverly nestled himself in the pages of art history, makes him yet another enfant terrible appropriated by The Show, and I thought this a perfect moment to re-post my 11-year-old previous takedown of Mr. Gunningham. Cheers, mate!                       
   Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?
- John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten) to the audience from the stage, 14 January, 1978.

News that graffiti artist Banksy now commands low-six-figure prices at Sotheby's should come as no surprise, given that art historical precedents have long established the “outlaw” artist as a worthy commodity. Rebellious artists are never more desirable than when they toil in the shadows and, as a recent New Yorker article on Banksy attests, struggle mightily to maintain that anonymity. We duly revere our reclusive artists, from Duchamp to Dylan, and will forgive their obsessive reticence to discuss their art, particularly if they happen to be geniuses.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to unpack Banksy’s aesthetic value here, but urge other critics and art theorists to delve into his street-art interventions that utilize a distinctly Surrealist, yet re-cycled juxtaposition for their effect. Instead, I wish to spotlight how Banksy’s near sadistic (mock?) rejection of fame and recognition has produced an increased and frenetic desire in (masochist?) collectors and, finally, an enhanced interest in this artist by the art world.

In film director Stanley Donen’s original Bedazzled, actor Peter Cook, playing the Devil/British pop singer Drimble Wedge, variously replies to feminine choruses of "You drive me wild" and "You knock me out" with his soporific "Leave me alone" and "I’m not available." Filmed in black-and-white and set in a TV studio, this scene brilliantly depicts the hypnotic adulation of the young for a self-absorbed pop idol, as his boredom with and verbal abuse of these fans continues to fuel their insatiable need for him. As an archetype of the “outlaw” artist, this character study reveals what we might call the Bedazzled syndrome, in which utter disdain for the public yields further desire.

To see Banksy shrewdly taunt his newly developing audience of wealthy and rabid collectors with an insulting cartoon (I Can't Believe You Morons Actually Buy This S**t.) is to witness again the "Not Available" mantra, as that very same punk ethos proven to somehow attract rather than repel. Banksy joins the ever-growing “outlaw” horde (Dash Snow and Dan Colen come to mind) of artists who create “in the shadows,” projecting disinterest in the “game” yet reaping the benefits, all while feigning an atmosphere of “unavailability” that cleverly drives public interest and collectors to auction for the artwork.

May 8, 2018

Prayer & Menace [1/16/08]

Administrator's Note: From 10 years ago, a brief contemplation on symbols of evil, resurrected today in anxiety over the worsening Global Threat of Nuclear Destruction, as a prayer for all Citizens of the World.

"The Buddhist wan zi is an ancient symbol that signifies prosperity and good fortune, yet its meaning was transformed through its usage as the swastika by the National Socialist German Worker's Party. As the meaning of a word relates to its context so my use of the wan zi in Meaning is in the system (2005) considers how the meaning of a symbol can change through its historical, cultural or political context."

From an original writing by MCB; © Copyright 2005.

On Avenida do Almirante Lacerda, oddly just east of the Canidrome dog-racing track, sits Lin Fung Temple. Inside an inner courtyard awash in incense and prayer, I found amazingly ornate furnishings including a sand-filled stand for incense offerings that featured prominent wan zi along its decorative upper border.

As a prime example of the fluctuation of meaning through cultures and history, the wan zi is exemplary of the contextuality of symbols, how the significance of a sign can be diverted through use and cultural, political or social context. The meaning of this ancient symbol was first established as a positive one by Buddhists, Hinduists and Taoists, yet later appropriated by the Nazi Party which diverted the bent-cross to its own political use. The rest, as they say, is history.

Meanings do indeed reside within systems of representation, whether it be art or language. The spiritual essence of the cross with bent arms was cherished by Asians for thousands of years before it was hijacked by Hitler. As an icon of hate it perhaps has no equal, yet it still exists in beatific purity and peace in temples and on statuary across the Eastern world. The wan zi may someday be absolved of its fearful signification but for the present it instills such dread that its presence in the sunny courtyard of Lin Fung Temple produces a surreal ambiance of the juxtaposition of prayer and menace in the Western mind.