This past August-September, a seaside town in England hosted a very different kind of holiday attraction: a dystopian theme park by the anonymous street-artist-turned-legit-artist Banksy. Called "Dismaland," the park, erected on the site of a derelict lido, was actually a curated exhibition of works by dozens of artists, all of which expressed critical views of mainstream culture and politics.
In this episode, we introduce you to Dismaland through a discussion of street art and Banksy's oeuvre; look closely at a few works on display; consider the ways in which Dismaland intersects with three major trends in contemporary art; and talk about the fate of Dismaland as recycled materials for a notorious refugee camp near Calais, France.
Don't miss the Slideshow below for images discussed in this podcast, as well as the Links to more information and News Updates on this developing story. You can also check out the Postscript, in which Tina glosses the thorniest art-historical issue raised by Banksy's work: the relation between aesthetics and politics.
TINA: As I mentioned in the episode, Dismaland—an art exhibition with a fairly explicit political agenda—raises a very thorny issue: the relation of aesthetics and politics. Of course, there are many definitions and theories of art, and there are many definitions and theories of politics, which only complicates the matter further.
Colloquially, “politics” refers to the actions required to govern a group of people. But more broadly, “the political” describes the framework through power is negotiated, which can include something as abstract as your worldview or system of beliefs. For example, negative stereotypes are “political” because they allow people to understand themselves as better than other kinds of people, and therefore as entitled to have more power than those other people.
In this regard, politics comes very close to “aesthetics,” in its broadest conception. Since the late nineteenth century, “aesthetics” has typically denoted the study or appreciation of the beautiful (hence, a person who appreciates beauty is called an “aesthete”). But the word actually stems from the Greek term for “perception,” and really just refers to our sensory perception of reality. Because our sensory perception of reality contributes to our knowledge of reality, it necessarily shapes our worldview or beliefs. In other words, if one views each term in its broadest sense, the aesthetic realm is not something opposed to the political realm, as is often thought: to the contrary, the aesthetic is always already political.
When we talk about “political art,” however, we mean something a little more specific. This term generally refers to art that explicitly engages politics, in the narrow sense. Thus, Dismaland is “political art” because it explicitly makes reference to political figures, such as current UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and to contemporary political problems, such as the migrant crisis. According to certain schools of thought, this kind of art is not “art” at all, because it seems to place a higher premium on making a political statement than on the needs of art. In other words, instead of being “pure,” and able to pursue its own agenda (whatever that may be), political art sacrifices art for politics, becoming nothing more than propaganda.
However, if one thinks that there is no such thing as “pure” art—if one thinks that all aesthetic experiences shape our understanding of the world, and are therefore political—the question is not whether political art can be art, but whether political art can be good art. Once again, it depends on how you define your terms. Personally, I tend to think of good art as art that attempts to pose questions, not answer them (although admittedly, art can also do that, too). By that logic, in order to figure out if Dismaland—or, for that matter, any example of political art—is “good,” you have to ask yourself: is this work telling me what to think—or is it forcing me to ask new questions?
The Story Behind Banksy, Smithsonian Magazine
Dismaland: The Official Unofficial Film, by Jaime Brightmore
29 Photos from Banksy's twisted 'Dismaland" theme park, Business Insider
Aug. 20, 2015: Banksy's Dismaland: 'amusements and anarchism' in artist's biggest project yet, The Guardian
Sept. 27: Banksy's Dismaland gloom a joyful memory from the seaside, BBC News
Sept. 29: Banksy's Dismaland theme park turned into shelters for migrants, CNN