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Banksy on Palestine’s broken walls: the medium really is the message

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A bank? Why would I want to see a bank? I came here to see the birthplace of Christ!

No, a Banksy. Do you want to go and see a Bansky?

What in God’s name is a Banksy?  – Bethlehem, May 2015.

So it was that two American pilgrims — retirees, sotherners judging by their drawl —  came to learn about the world’s most famous street artist. They were bemused. They didn’t quite understand the connection between Jesus and this Banksy fellow. Here they were in the Holy Land, on a trip they’d probably been planning for years, and they were being confronted by a man — an Arab no less, which, for many white conservative American Christians is a synonym for terrorist — offering to take them to some sight they’d not only not planned to visit, but had never even heard of.

They declined his offer and, thus, passed up a unique touristic pleasure: The sight of the virgin birth in the morning and, in the afternoon, ‘a Bansky’.

The politics and cultural value of street art have long been divisive topics because it pushes back against what has, for centuries, been considered ‘art.’ The idea that street art is at once both valuable — culturally and artistically — and a canvas for others to paint over, challenges long accepted notions of how art should be consumed and preserved. Artists have always re-used canvases, but they never painted over their masterpieces. Street artists, at least in the early days, didn’t discriminate.

Looking at the Banksy stencils in Bethlehem and in other cities in the West Bank, one is struck by the fact that the location adds a further layer of complexity to an art form that is still often misunderstood or, depending on your take, increasingly corrupted by the ‘art world’ (whatever that is).

It’s self-evident to say that Bethlehem isn’t Bristol or Berlin and Ramallah’s not Rio, but it’s not until you stand in front of one of Banksy’s works in the occupied territories that one fully understands what that means. I’ve seen his work in Melbourne, London and Berlin and, while his anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist and anti-surveillance messages resonate, it’s in Palestine that his work is imbued with a unique sense of injustice that is, quite literally, painted on the very walls that carry it.

The walls that his work is painted on imprison the Palestinians and ‘liberate’ Israelis —  never has Marshall McLuhan’s idea that ‘the medium is the message’ seemed more relevant or more compelling. Of course, street art — an art form that takes its name from its medium — has always been an illustrative example of McLuhan’s thesis, but in Palestine the ‘street’ is an exponentially more political place because it is a contested sight of  war and occupation.

Street art challenges the convention that art is something that hangs in galleries and is consumed by the educated upper-classes. The politicisation of art didn’t start with street art, but it has democraticised art in a radical and new way.

It merged ideas of high art with vandalism and criminality: It turned what was once considered an act of destruction into something not just socially acceptable, but widely lauded. So, born out of illegality, it’s inevitable that street art is inherently political in a way that other art forms are not (though they might have been in the past).

Similarly, it attracts those with a radical bent who see laws as social constructs that, when morally permissible, should be broken.

The fortress through Palestine is covered in street art, graffiti and messages of resistance or struggle and Banksy’s work fits comfortably alongside these. Their financial or cultural value is far less important than their political value. That the Israeli authorities have removed or painted over some of Banksy’s work matters little because it only reaffirms the repression many Palestinians experience on a daily basis.

Above all, his work is an expression of solidarity with a persecuted and occupied people. It’s not insignificant that the world’s best-known street artist has contributed to the Palestinian struggle in a tangible and real way — even if it’s only to force a few pilgrims to see that there’s more to Bethlehem than being the place the Bible says Jesus was born.

And Banksy’s commitment to the Palestinian’s cause has continued. Following the most recent war in Gaza, he travelled to the ‘world’s largest open-air prison’ where he adorned the ruins of Israel’s assault with his work. It should be noted that getting into Gaza is no mean feat: it is blockaded by Israel and, for those without permission, can only be accessed illegally via tunnels, presumably from Egypt’s north Sinai since Israel claims to have destroyed all tunnels into her territory during the last bombardment.

As street art has become more widely recognised as having its own value one of its stranger developments is that people have sought to ‘protect’ works by famous artists like Banksy. It’s strange because it is counter to the very ethos on which street art was founded and represents a shift towards more traditionally accepted notions of what constitutes art.

Nevertheless, it’s a shift easily explained. Our modern Western societies are built on the foundations of capitalism and, since the Reagan-Thatcher era, this has become the raison d’ětre by which every aspect of society relies on in order to function ‘effectively.’ Culture has been subsumed by the market — ‘value’ is not some sort of abstraction anymore, it’s something that can be priced. The idea that culture can operate independently of the market now seems naïve or fantastic —  to suggest such a thing to a ‘serious person’ is to be accused of being divorced from reality.

And so, when a Gazan familiar with Banksy’s work cheated his neighbour into selling him a spray-painted Rodinesque figure painted on a bombed-out iron and brick doorway for 700 shekels (about $A230), one could hardly be surprised.

This has, in one form or another, been going on for as long as people have thought they can make money from street art. How many Banksy’s have been chiselled out of walls around the world?

As a society we’re dismissive of these acts of vandalism and robbery. This is the spirit, after all, that we’re taught to believe in. These are the people —  emboldened by Ayn Rand’s call to act selfishly and take what you want to make your life better — that prosper in our neoliberal age.

But do these same forces of corruption — of unrestrained, immoral capitalism — infect Gaza too? Well of course, if one speaks about capitalism as being all-pervasive, it only makes sense that it reaches the places that suffer the most under the system.

But the Left has a tendency to romanticise resistance struggles in far away lands and to see the people living there not as fellow humans, but as abstract players in a political action – a kind of undefined part that makes up an ideological whole. There is an obvious disconnect with reality here, but it does raise interesting questions about how street art — and, more specifically, Banksy’s work in Palestine — can be co-opted and used in a way that is counter to his original message.

Would, for example, the artist approve of the shop set-up in Bethlehem selling postcards and posters of his work? His work is being used (exploited, if you will) in the pursuit of personal wealth but, on the other hand, if it provides a Palestinian family with a livelihood is that such a bad thing?

Banksy is certainly not the first artist whose work has been misinterpreted for personal gain. (Who could forget Dan Brown’s bestselling novel born out of some crazed esoteric interpretation of Da Vinci’s Last Supper?) Nor should it be reason enough to stop producing art and, in the case of street art, engaging in political struggles.

There is much to be celebrated about Banksy’s work in Palestine. To walk through Israeli settlements and see the homes of Palestinians destroyed, their shops welded shut and the old market places deserted is to get a glimpse of the despair those under occupation have to live with. It can feel, at times, a place devoid of hope.

For Palestinians, largely abandoned by the international community, it must feel as though they are fighting apartheid alone. Walking along and photographing the seemingly endless wall in Bethlehem, a young boy approached me selling some tissues. I handed over one shekel and said shokran (thank you).

And with that simple gesture — one Arabic word — his entire demeanour changed. With a smile across his face he took me by the hand and, pointing into the distance, excitedly repeated, ‘Banksy! Banksy! Banksy!’ as he led me to the stencil I’d just come from. I saw that he understood that there were people on his side –that, as futile as it may seem, his people haven’t been entirely abandoned — and, in that moment, with the innocence only children possess, that’s all that mattered.

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