Banksy's exhibition in New York gets people talking about art

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Audio Transcript:

Kurt Andersen: Banksy, the mysterious street artist from Britain has been doing ingenious art stunts for 20 years, and during the last decade became a superstar for stenciling ladders on the wall that Israel built on the west bank, for installing sculptures of hooded Guantanamo prisoners at Disney Land. He's been sort of quiet the past few years, until last month. Banksy showed up in New York to do what he called, "Better out than in". A new Banksy work popped up on some undisclosed street everyday for a month. His experiment generated tons of buzz all over the country and the world, and may be the most extensively documented contemporary art show in history. Jerry Saltz is the senior art critic at New York Magazine and he followed Banksy's work while he was in New York. Jerry, welcome to Studio 360.

Jerry Saltz: Thanks for having me.

Andersen: So, first off, can you give people an idea of exactly what work Banksy was doing?

Saltz: By and large, it was one work a day, painting mostly, but some sculpture. There were kind of cartoon things, there were balloons, there was a dog peeing on a fire hydrant, there were circus acts, there was a truck filled stuffed animals, some text pieces quoting this or that famous arthur, or saying cheeky things.

Andersen: So this residency, as he called, has to be the most talked about visual art event of the year. Was it anything close to the best?

Saltz: It wasn't even what I would call an event of art. I would call it more an event of promotion, hype. Incredible british ability to put on an event and a show with razzmatazz.

Andersen: But, given, that certainly, from Andy Warhol through Damien Hirst, so much of contemporary art has been about all of those things of buzz and hype and PR.

Saltz: Absolutely, except with Warhol there's art to back it up. Nobody had used those colors before Warhol used them. They had been there since the beginning. Nobody overlapped silk screens before Warhol did. Banksy is basically a photorealist who takes an artist's style and brings it to the street. I give him a lot of credit for doing that. Would I call him a great street artist? I'd say he's a really successful one, and especially at producing reaction and that is, I'll grant, an art and if more artists had that capacity we'd see more people out there doing it.

Andersen: One of the ones that struck me as interesting because it kind of cut close to the bone of who he is, is when he had some anonymous guy in Central Park selling his work, which is presumably worth thousands of dollars a piece, for 60 dollars, which is kind of a critique of how celebrity is what is valued in art.

Saltz: Yes, and again, I rank that one in the middle somewhere. It did have a frisson of transgression, a little bit "Ahh, I see, so he's making fun of even himself." That's fine. I love that the public might be in on that kind of conversation, more, I say.

Andersen: This is, at least to me, so much more interesting than the standard issue retrospective of an artist at the Whitney Museum, no?

Saltz: No, I don't agree at all. I think that the arc of a career, of the ups and downs, the ins and outs, the desperation -

Andersen: Rather than just the jottings of this month?

Saltz: Yeah, I mean, could Goya make 30 good works in a month? Maybe. But not Reubens.

Andersen: Vermeer couldn't do a third of a painting in a month.

Saltz: Right.

Andersen: The works, as they appeared day by day by day, were all over social media - twitter, facebook, instagram, all the rest and especially young people racing to get photos of themselves in front of the stuff. So, should we be happy that this populist reaction was provoked and/or unhappy that doing selfies is now a part of the art experience?

Saltz: Well, you can't stop the selfies. They're now a force unto themselves, they go on in every museum - what are you going to do? I have to say that any time that the group mind gets together, that somebody provides a kind local campfire for everyone to gather round and throw their two cents in - I'm for that. I had a ball at every one of the Banksy's I went to. The Banksy itself was irrelevant. Its context was even irrelevant. But people together were not.

Andersen: And will this Banksy event and bringing all this attention to visual art - will either young artists or museums or galleries take lessons from it, do you think? And try to apply it in their own work and realms?

Saltz: I think museums are always trying to expand and I think that young artists always want attention, money, buzz, PR, sex, fame, immortality -

Andersen: And have your cake and eat it too? Be rich and be a mysterious street dude.

Saltz: Underground - they all want it. So, Banksy, exactly, is your masked man, Zorro, Batman. He's Batman. You just have to have work at the middle of this. You gotta have product or something.

Andersen: Jerry Saltz, thank you very much.

Saltz: Thank you.

Andersen: Jerry Saltz is the senior art critic at New York Magazine. You can see a slideshow of some of Banksy's work that appeared on the streets of New York at and after you take a look, tell us what you think. Did the artist's "Better out than in" show break new ground or was it just an over hyped stunt, or both?