Melbourne loves its street art. We know that from the regularity our stencil-adorned laneways are used to promote the city in tourism ads and fashion spreads. Not so long ago, Lonely Planet even claimed that Melbourne’s street art was now one of Australia’s biggest tourist attractions.
So now comes the news that Melbourne will play host to one of the world’s most famous street artists, the ubiquitous-yet-elusive Banksy, whose work will be housed in one of our premier cultural institutions in Federation Square later this year.
Banksy may have once been a clever and mildly subversive street artist, but this show surely signals a steep descent from what was once considered outsider fringe art into the league of mainstream acceptability.
The news of the forthcoming Art of Banksy exhibition has been welcomed by mayor Robert Doyle as a “major coup” for the city. After all, Melbourne is internationally feted for its own home-grown street art scene, and has played host to some famously desecrated works by Banksy himself.
But since when is Doyle a friend of street art? Surely the approval of a known critic of street art like Doyle is more like a kiss of death. This is the same guy who earlier this year has gone on the record calling for a tightening of graffiti laws so anyone caught even carrying a spray can could be charged with a criminal offence if they can be linked to graffiti.
Moreover, Doyle has spoken in the tabloid media in support of “New York-style” no-tolerance policies where “vandals” are imprisoned for up to a year and police have the power to issue multiple charges for each piece of graffiti. So it seems more that a bit rich for him to now be welcoming the world’s most famous street artist to Federation Square with such open arms.
If that’s not sending mixed signals, I don’t know what is. It’s a tension that our city has never really dealt with – we love our street art but persecute our street artists.
Melbourne’s street art is our city’s most significant recent art movement and has gained us international repute as a street art capital of the world – but it has always existed in the face of being outlawed and vilified – and Doyle has been one of its most vocal critics.
It’s hard to see how Banksy’s Melbourne show will do much to help resolve this.
OK so the exhibition will feature the work of local street artists (presumably those lucky enough to have avoided arrest in honing their craft) and will include a fleet of food trucks just to keep the edgy hipster vibe. It will also feature some of Banksy’s most famous works including Girl with a Balloon, Flag fall and Laugh Now.
But surely a large part of Banksy’s original appeal resides in the fact that his work was generally exhibited covertly and outside the legal or artistic establishment – such as the rats he stencilled just off Flinders Lane around the corner from the police station that were inadvertently removed by a council worker in 2010.
Banksy’s best work has been the work that spoke to the context in which it was exhibited, such as his pieces adorning the walls of the Gaza strip in 2015 or his famous pieces on the West Bank barrier separating Israel from Palestine. This was work that had a sharp political message and helped to generate relevant discussion about the plight of those living under military oppression.
But Banksy’s Melbourne exhibition is something quite different. It’s a commercial exhibition promoted by US multinational companies including Live Nation and endorsed by city authorities. The sting of political subversion or any notion of vibrant, organic street credibility is sadly lost in the equation – leaving a show that may rely more on tired nostalgia than authenticity.
If nothing else, even before it opens its doors in October Banksy’s Melbourne show has already exposed a gaping contradiction in Melbourne’s attitude to our street art. It’s surely time Melbourne openly dealt with this tension in our response to street art rather than leaving it to tabloid beat-ups and empty political gestures.
But by putting his name to this new show, we can no longer say with certainty which side Banksy is on.
First published in The Age