The Art of Social Justice by William Klein

Banksy is not only a unique artist, but he has strong ideas on how to help a community in need. I’ll address this in a minute, but first a little background on the artist.

Banksy is the phenomenal graffiti artist, political activist and film auteur who steals away in the dark of night and creates art that is thought provoking and powerful.  His brand has become iconic and rivals the likes of Andy Warhol for contemporary artists.

His work includes a terrorist lobbing flowers.  The other memorable piece is of a child releasing a heart balloon into the air. During the auction of this original piece, the original painting slowly slipped out of the frame and was shredded thus increasing the value of the art even more. This trick was done via remote control and stunned the viewers who witnessed it.

A while back in New York City, for one month, the artist was giving clues like the Riddler from Batman and leaving his mark through his art on walls, doors and spots around the city. Art patrons were frantically looking for his art to be the first to witness it and take pictures. Other competitive or jealous graffiti artists were anxious to place their mark over the artist’s so as to invalidate the art and undermine its value as a statement against his commercialism. One never knew where he would strike next.

A few of the doors that were graffitied were quickly taken down because the owners knew the profitability and would try to sell it on Ebay.

In one of his exhibitions he had puppet animals riding in boxcars around New York, supposedly being taken to the slaughterhouse.

The most unique money making scheme came in the form of Banksy buying a piece of cheesy art from a thrift shop whose profits go to the underprivileged.  The painting was an idyllic view of a serene mountain landscape and a tranquil river.  He politicized the art by placing a Nazi officer sitting on a bench and enjoying the view along with his signature “Bansky” in the corner. He returned the piece and staged it in the front window.  The proceeds from the painting went to a good cause and provided big cash to the store. The painting recently sold for $613,000.

At its best, art is social justice.  It challenges society to examine its beliefs and encourages participants to look deeper and consider their roles in society in doing something about injustice. Even a portrait can impart a sense of empathy for a poor soul and the adversities he faces, because we’ve all worn the smile of misfortune.

At its very best, a work of art can shape a community and be the crown jewel of a city’s revival. I learned this from my theater mentor who was instrumental in the revival of Playhouse Square in Cleveland, Ohio. In the seventies private entities threatened the wrecking ball to the aging State, Ohio and Palace Theaters. Theater impresario Ray Shepardson saw this injustice and acted to restore the theaters to their original glory.  He solicited the genius of director Joe Garry and actor David Frazier to stage “Jaques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”, the landmark production ran for two years in the lobby of the State Theater, thus saving the theaters. To this day, Playhouse Square continues to thrive and is a major source of revenue for the city of Cleveland.  It is the largest concentration of theaters between New York and Los Angeles.

These were the artists Bertolt Brecht was talking about when he said, “There are men who fight one day and are good. There are others that fight for a year and are better. Some fight for many years and are very good. But there are those who fight all their lives: those are the essentials”.

The great ones know how to make their lives a work of art for the good of justice and community. They know implicitly that art and justice are inextricably linked.

Gerard Manley Hopkins said it beautifully. “…The just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

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