The anonymous British street artist Banksy’s one month ‘residence’ in New York City christened ‘Better Out than In’ is coming to a close. His (rumour says it’s a ‘he’) provocative pieces and persona have stirred up debates going far beyond the artistic world—a fact Banksy would no doubt be proud of.
The spectrum of these debates doesn’t seem to cover the realm of international relations just yet, which is surprising, given that Banksy’s stint in NYC was one of many recent events in popular culture that seem to suggest a shift in the ‘special relationship’ between the USA and the Britain.
The term ‘special relationship’ was first coined by Churchill in 1946 in a speech in Fulton, Missouri, during which he claimed there existed a ‘fraternal association of the English Speaking peoples’. The close Anglo-American cooperation during and after the Cold War seemed to substantiate his claim. However, following the ‘disaster’ that was the 2003 Iraq War and Cameron’s recent defeat in the House of Commons regarding UK military action in Syria, there has been talk of the ‘end of the special relationship’.
The picture painted by the events in so-called ‘Tier I diplomacy’ seems unpromising. However, once we dig deeper into ‘Tier II diplomacy’ and beyond, the situation appears to be less pessimistic, but more complex. Britain, at least in the realm of popular culture and mass media, seems to be acting as a ‘voice of conscience’ for America and catalysing self-reflection— for better or for worse.
A brief survey of the series of artworks suggests that Banksy is trying to do just that. The name of the campaign is suggestive enough—‘Better Out than In’ could mean many things: a comparison between street art and formal exhibition art, or a call for people to air out their thoughts.
I am no art critic, so some pieces like the ant-hill on Staten Island seem pretty obscure. That said, some pieces were undoubtedly political, such as the parody video of Syrian rebels shooting down the flying cartoon elephant Dumbo, the twin towers with a Chrysanthemum erupting from one of them, and horses with night vision goggles and military targets spray painted on an abandoned car (accompanied by an audiotrack from the Iraq War courtesy of Wikileaks).
In the video, the cartoon elephant Dumbo is shot down by a rebel. People in it celebrate and shout ‘Allahu Akbar’, except for a child who goes up to examine Dumbo and then kicks the rebel responsible—an obvious comment on the destruction of innocence in war. Coupled with the obvious link to Syria, it brought up uncomfortable questions about the nature of the Syrian conflict and the awkward situation the US found itself in—how much better are the rebels than Assad?
The Twin Tower piece is equally intriguing—the Chrysanthemum flower ‘erupting’ from one of the towers packs a symbolic double punch. The golden flower symbolises optimism in America—possibly a comment on initial national unity in the wake of the tragedy, and the purported aims of ‘spreading democracy’ of the War on Terror. However, in other cultures such as the Japanese, Chinese and certain European ones, white chrysanthemums are a symbol of death—definitely a tribute to the people who died in the tragedy, but possibly also a more morbid take on the effects of 9/11.
The artwork itself is only the first level of discourse that Banksy opens up. On a macro-level, the entire ‘residency’ can be treated as one piece of performance art, thus putting government and public responses under the scope of scrutiny. It is in this level of discourse that the catalysing role of a British symbol such as Banksy can be teased out.
The public response varied from piece to piece. The rebel video elicited responses from Syrian observers, some of them negative, claiming that it ‘over-simplifies’ the conflict. A Washington Post piece highlighted the awkward position left-wing people occupy vis-à-vis the rebels.
The reaction from other graffiti artists is also telling—some of B’s works were defaced, mostly not for political reasons, but some of the ‘going over’ work were distinctly political, such as the ‘IT’S AN INSIDE JOB’ sprayed alongside the 9/11 piece.
Reactions to his less political pieces also uncover parts of the American identity for public scrutiny. A few people cordoned off one of his pieces in East New York and started charging people money to take pictures of it—Banksy (or some Banksy fan) managed to capture this on video and it’s now on the banksyny site. If anything, it exposes the entrepreneurial part of the American identity in its raw form. His lacklustre attempt at selling his artwork at Central Park for $60 each (he only managed to sell 8) was followed by a subsequent stint by professional hoaxer Dave Cicirelli, in which the counterfeiters managed to sell 40 in one hour at the same price as Banksy. This unearths another part of the American psyche that is worth thinking about.
Mayor Bloomberg branded Banksy as a ‘vandal’ and suggested he is breaking the law. And yet, the cultural delinquent remains at large—whether due to a lack of will or power, the authorities don’t seem to have much hold over the artist.
Tenuous as the link may be, it echoes the acclaimed film The Dark Knight directed by Christopher Nolan—a British director. The franchise has been interpreted by critics as a commentary on American identity in a post 9/11 world, and Nolan himself admits that this was one facet that his film aimed to explore. Some might go so far as to say the film was able to capture Batman’s (and Gotham’s) dilemma against the terrorist Joker because it wasn’t directed by an American. Going with the superhero analogy, it might be because Americans tend to see America as Superman, with a special set of superpowers, or in IR terms, national exceptionalism. Foreigners, on the other hand, see America as Batman, an actor with great material capabilities who fights injustice but remains a figure that is feared and sometimes detested.
The Snowden incident also suggests the same shift in role. Snowden chose to leak his information to the Guardian—a British newspaper. The subsequent maelstrom challenged facets of American national image and self-perception, the effects of which remains to be seen.
These incidents indicate that Britain, or rather, British institutions and symbols play a catalysing role in the discourse shaping American national identity. These processes occur in popular culture and ‘low politics’, which illustrate the permeability to external influences of these levels in relation to ‘Tier I’ diplomacy. It seems plausible that Britain is able to do this because of her previous ‘special relationship’ with America. In a time when the US is going through an ‘identity crisis’, especially after the Snowden incident, Britain’s new role is undoubtedly ‘special’.
Then again, it is really easy to over-interpret in popular culture, and maybe I am guilty of doing so. Maybe the entire stint in New York is just Banksy’s way of sending a message to observers like myself. Maybe, like his spray painted dog urinating on a fire hydrant, Banksy’s just taking the piss.