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Issue 8

Can Banksy Bring Dadaism Back To Life?

Shrishti Agrawal

Banksy’s work, ranging from Kissing Coppers and Unwelcome Intervention to Hammer Boy and Girl with a Balloon, embraces social commentary through provocative visual depictions. But the true essence, the philosophy behind his art is often related to the 20th-century art movement, dadaism.

The explosion of different street art movements comes from the combined effort of various artists who practise hybrid forms of graffiti to make a mark by any means possible. But if there is one player who grabs the spotlight beyond the art world, it’s Banksy. 

A professional prankster, Banksy is a street graffiti artist and a global sensation. Banksy’s flair for street art combined with the proclivity for mystery, drama and danger ensures that every new Banksy piece ends up making headlines. Banksy’s work, ranging from Kissing Coppers and Unwelcome Intervention to Hammer Boy and Girl with a Balloon, embraces social commentary through provocative visual depictions. But the true essence, the philosophy behind his art is often related to the 20th-century art movement, dadaism. 

Dadaism or the Dada art movement began in Zurich, Switzerland in the mid-1910s. In pre-war Europe, the movement emerged as a form of protest art with congregations of artists, intellectuals and writers expressing different forms of subversion in the wake of World War I. The European avant-garde movement aimed to ridicule modern life, apply absurdity to art and question the values held by the bourgeois. 

The movement was based on some key ideas. Elaborately explained by thoughtco., three ideas were basic to the Dada movement—spontaneity, negation, and absurdity—and those three ideas were expressed in a vast array of creative chaos.

Spontaneity was an appeal to individuality and a violent cry against the system. Even the best art is an imitation; even the best artists are dependent on others, they said. Romanian poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara (1896–1963) wrote that literature is never beautiful because beauty is dead; it should be a private affair between the writer and himself. Only when art is spontaneous can it be worthwhile, and then only to the artist.

To a Dadaist, negation meant sweeping and cleaning away the art establishment by spreading demoralization. Morality, they said, has given us charity and pity; morality is an injection of chocolate into the veins of all. Good is no better than bad; a cigarette butt and an umbrella are as exalted as God. Everything has illusory importance; man is nothing, everything is of equal unimportance; everything is irrelevant, nothing is relevant. 

And in the end, everything is absurd. Everything is paradoxical; everything opposes harmony.

A pioneer of the Dada movement, Marcel Duchamp, incorporated these ideas of the movement to critique establishments that decided what art ought to be and how it ought to be created. In doing so, he combined spontaneity, negation and absurdity and came up with what some consider the first piece of conceptual art ever created, Fountain

Fountain is a standard white urinal that was signed and dated ‘R. Mutt 1917’ in black. It is a part of Duchamp’s series of work called readymades where ordinary objects would be designated as works of art. Fountain is one of Duchamp’s most famous works and a classic example of dada. By submitting an object like a urinal that is bought in the plumber’s shop as an entry for an art exhibition, he intended to test what people thought of as art. He wanted to change the idea of what was conventionally considered art and assert that the artistic expression was of greater significance than the object of art created. Thus, the dada movement was one of the first art movements that challenged the foundations of art. 

Although the movement did not represent particular styles of art, it favoured collaboration, spontaneity and chance in the process of creation. As traditional dadaists intended to reject traditional forms of artistic expression like painting and sculpting, they worked on ready-made objects, created photomontage and made use of non-conventional mediums. 

While the lifespan of the dada movement was known to be short-lived, Banksy’s creations and artistic stunts have brought this movement back to life. In one particular stunt, Banksy made use of an invention of the dada movement, auto-destructive art. The dada notion behind auto-destructive art comes from the idea that it aims to either redefine art or ridicule it.

In a 2018 Sotheby’s art auction in London, Banksy’s famous image Girl with a Balloon, which depicts the image of a girl reaching out for a red, heart-shaped balloon, was sold for $1.4 million. A few moments later, the picture started shredding and sliding down in strips. Sotheby’s claimed that it had been “Banksy’d” through the use of a hidden shredder in the photo frame. The act is viewed as a dada act because it was an attempt to critique the pretentiousness of the art world and show how easy it was to transform what people considered precious art into strips of paper. 

From critiquing consumerism and capitalism to calling out social absurdities, the elusive graffiti artist is often critiqued for falling prey to the cultural system. The stunt of shredding the image Girl with a Balloon led to its increase in value in the art market. Thus, a stunt of provocation ended up being co-opted into an exhibition. While past movements have influenced the future trajectory of art, it is important to remember that cultural sensibilities and audience interaction with art are as important as the art itself. 

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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