May 21, 2007
The Bedazzled Syndrome
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.