We’ve all seen it by now. A hasty peace sign with the Eiffel Tower set inside, calling to mind recent tragedy. Like most viral memes, “Peace for Paris” quickly escaped its original creator, a little-known graphic designer named Jean Jullien. Subsequent research attached Jullien’s name to the work, but I’d wager most of us still haven’t heard of him.
In fact, following the attacks, another artist’s name dominated online speculation about the image. Another artist, whose name is a buzzword for all that is insufferably hip. Perhaps Jullien’s casual brushstrokes evoked spray-paint on concrete. Maybe the symbol was painted, with studious irony, on a wall outside the UK Ministry of Defence. That’s right, I’m talking about Banksy.
I have nothing against Banksy’s art. Much of it is brilliant, a stenciled satire on the hypocrisy, venality, and all-around badness of society. It is vandalism, sure, but the places where it appears are so barren and ugly that modification could only improve them. Combining technical skill, an eye for irony, and a healthy absurdist streak, Banksy lets even the most oppressive facades denounce their own culture of oppression.
I’ve never been a street art nerd, but I admired Banksy enough to feature one of his works – rioter throwing bouquet of flowers – as my Facebook profile for several months. I’ve seen his film Exit Through the Gift Shop, a strange ode to fellow street artist Thierry Guetta. His ribbing of the police and CCTV are appreciated. But wasn’t there something obscenely predictable about our eagerness to credit him for the Paris drawing?
From the moment the rumor hit social media, I didn’t think Bansky really created the image. Not to imply that Banksy (whoever he/she/they are) doesn’t share in the collective grief over what happened. But anyone familiar with his repertoire knows that Banksy’s work is rarely straightforward. There’s always an angle, an implied critique of the viewer and of society.
If I had to guess, I’d expect Banksy to side with Team Beirut and lace his Paris picture with a critique of colonial bias. But never mind that “Peace for Paris” wasn’t his usual style: it was a pop image with some meaning, and thus he must be behind it. Banksy’s brand is so powerful that building owners count can themselves lucky when he “defaces” their property. If I owned a building, I’d expose a blank concrete wall, maybe mount a fake camera and some official-looking sign, hoping he’ll show up.
This isn’t an attack on Banksy. It’s a critique of the social thinking that sustains him. In the internet era more than ever, we expect regular doses of our favorite stuff delivered in a predictable way. Even someone like Banksy, who exists to disrupt that culture, is now a poster-boy for middle class would-be revolutionaries. Our media culture neutralizes criticism by appropriating it.
Maybe the real problem lies with street art itself. And hasn’t the name of Banksy become almost synonymous with that enterprise? He’s an unknown quantity, an outlaw, and anonymity has only added to the allure. Banksy’s mystique has driven speculation that he may be a collective of many artists, each working in “his” signature style.
Hmm. That’s not so very different from the co-creation, co-authorship, sharing, and collective brainstorming favored by digital capital. Like an online alias, “Banksy” lets him operate without dragging his own name around. Even if there is someone from Bristol who pioneered the Banksy phenomenon, what’s to prevent a skilled artist from passing off a forged Banksy? Art, writing, video, music – all intellectual property is now at risk from those who would devalue it. Or worse still, those who would catapult it to fame as a meme: something that issued from the roiling froth without an owner, author, or history.
If I had to criticize street art, it would be for making the ephemeral cool. For telling young people that the system will inevitably erase what they create, and convincing them that is a good thing. It is perfect irony that Snapchat has built a billion-dollar business around graffiti’s promise: that your subversive image will linger for a moment and then be washed away.
Of course, when those creations are powerful they’re not really erased. What can be erased are the rights and property privileges of the original creators. And it’s doubly hard when you’re coming from the left: if your creative portfolio consists of thinly-veiled socialism, what right do you have to demand royalties? The creative knowledge worker, who wants to work for good, finds that he or she can’t get paid for it.
I know nothing about Jean Jullien. I can’t say what kind of person he is. But I know he has to call himself graphic designer, not artist, because he wants to make a living doing what he enjoys. Banksy can call himself an artist: he deserves to. But Jean Jullien created an image that won’t disappear.