Art as Prophetic Subversion

banksy_christI have already stated emphatically that art is good simply because it is creative. Art glorifies God simply by being imaginative and original. Art’s value is not based on its instrumentality or on its commercial value. What proceeds below must not serve to undermine this foundational assertion: Good art is good art; it glorifies God “as is.”

Beyond the inherent goodness in art, there are also other ways that art can bring glory to God. Today we will look at how art can be both creative and prophetic. Tomorrow we will see how art can be redemptive and restorative.

Art can be prophetic, creating critical awareness of injustice, brokenness, oppression, and the need for action to alleviate suffering.
“Using the arts to create critical awareness is not new. In the Old Testament Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, and other prophets used drama, allegory, and poetry to jolt people and nations into thinking about their lives in the world. Jesus, by his presence and his storytelling, often confused and angered those around him who did not want to recognize their own role in oppressing the poor. He created critical awareness among the poor by causing them to see and act on the new life of freedom that was possible outside the accepted cultural boundaries based on status, wealth, power, religion, gender, and ethnicity.” (Taking it to the Streets: Using the Arts to Transform Your Community, by J. Nathan Corbitt and Vivian Nix-Early, p. 129)
In the movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, an eccentric Frenchman Thierry Guetta has an obsession to videotape the secret lives of the most famous street artists as they create their art. Even though he tells the street artists he is making a documentary, he in fact has no ability to do so, he simply collects box after box of unmarked videotapes. In his exploits, Guetta meets many of the most famous street artists in the world, including Space Invader, Shephard Fairey (known for his Andre the Giant stencils and made famous through his colorful Barack Obama posters during the 2008 election) and the most famous and most mysterious street artist of them all, Banksy, whose legendary art mysteriously appears on walls, bridges, and streets throughout the world. All we know of Banksy’s identity is that he is a 30-something male from the Bristol area of England. In the film, Banksy’s face is obscured in black while he wears a hoody as he is speaks to the camera.

Banksy - No_LoiteringBanksy is one of today’s greatest creative geniuses. Most of his art is created through a unique stenciling technique (though he also creates physical props) and these masterpieces are often satirical and subversive, using irreverent dark humor to offer insightful social commentary.
banksy - palestinian wallHis art has appeared throughout the world, including buildings made derelict by Hurricane Katrina (one painting depicted an old man sitting on a rocking chair waving a small American flag under spray-painted words “No Loitering”), the wall that divides Israel and Palestine (where he created nine provocative paintings depicting escape, freedom, and beauty on an object that represents imprisonment and the ugly reality of political faction), and even Disneyland (where he placed a life-sized replica of a Guantanamo Bay detainee next to a roller coaster). When an art museum commissions Banksy to display his art, the museum is vacated while he secretly comes in and installs his art. One of his most provocative paintings depicts Christ crucified, but instead of being on a cross, his spread arms and hands are carrying shopping bags full of Christmas presents. The street prophet is asking us, “What is Christmas really about today? How has commercialization and commodification usurped the real story of Christ?”

banksy-disneylandIn Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy realizes that Thierry Guetta is not really a creative artist capable of making the movie and therefore takes over the direction of the documentary. Flipping the script on Guetta, Banksy suggests to the crazy Frenchman to become a street artist himself, which he excitedly does. Guetta takes the alter ego “Mr. Brainwash” and mass-produces street art for a big debut show in Los Angeles.

Banksy successfully transforms the movie into the story of Thierry Guetta, whose only talent is to copy the art of those he admires for commercial monetary success. “Mr. Brainwash’s” show is a success, as people line up and pay a lot of money for pieces of pop-art that are totally derivative of the true street artists.

Bansky’s film shows, through the character of the shallow Guetta, that not all art is authentically creative. Banksy also exposes the desire in our culture to commodify everything, even art.
So, in the film, we get insight into both the creative and the prophetic aspects of art that glorifies God.
Art is art when it is not derivative, when it is done with authenticity, and when it is not subsumed under the weight of commercialization. This is art that is done by image-bearers reflecting the creative imagination of the Creator.

Art can also be prophetic, as exemplified by the work of Banksy, whose subversive creations speak against injustice and unrighteousness. While the authorities paint over his art because they are classified as “defacing graffiti,” Banksy continues his defiant agitation of the status quo.

What would it look like if a new generation of Christians took seriously the task of being subversive prophetic voices in their culture?

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