For about 24 hours in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, a contemporary work of art resonated with us as a contemporary audience, while being effortlessly clever and intelligent. Then it was stopped dead in its tracks. But this need not matter, thanks to 24 hour digital mass media Banksy’s point has been made and it will live on in our minds and virtual reality for a long time to come. Banksy has extraordinarily succeeded where another publicised artistic effort, which was also stopped dead in its tracks, has failed rather spectacularly. I am talking about Exhibit B, which in September caused a stir amongst anti-racism campaigners, and was branded racist just as Banky’s Pigeons was.
In branding them racist both Banky’s Pigeons and Exhibit B were censored but that is about where the similarity between the two artistic efforts ends. While Banky’s Pigeons confronts, Exhibit B just shocks, merely for the fun of it. While Banky’s Pigeons is clever, Exhibit B is stark and offensive. Did I get to see Exhibit B? No. Do I need to have seen it to make these judgements? No. The snatches of images of black people chained, gagged or bound I have seen, on various news media, are enough to cause me to recoil in anger and disgust.
Art has long struggled to be educational. It was in losing its ability to educate that the masses began to see it as not particularly relevant. At best it entertains and at worst it is just ignored. In the bid to counter being ignored the idea of shock tactics was born. However, we as an audience quickly moved from being shocked to becoming desensitized and maybe amused, artist Grayson Perry said as much in his Reith lectures. In the end art has become a just-because-I-can endeavour. Exhibit B is nothing more than an example of this type of endeavour.
Purveyors of Exhibit B need to be offering a lot more than the accusations of censorship and their right to freedom of expression to justify their output. Rather than resting on the crutch of free expression, the question they need to answer is: How have our efforts contributed to the debate on racism in Britain and Europe? These purveyors need to be aware that they are operating within an environment of shock and amusement. However, the history of slavery, colonialism and racism are far too fresh and their legacies far to prevalent in our society today and the daily existence of black people, to be reduced to shock tactics and amusement. Their motifs or imagery needed to be sensitive and their message needed to be clever, intelligent and relevant. Banky’s choice of birds was a clever and a sensitive motif. His message was very relevant and maybe too relevant for comfort, but his intelligent choice of location Clacton-on-Sea, in Essex meant he caught the eye of the relevant and right audience.
The purveyors of Exhibit B need to: stop bleating about censorship, take correction and be aware of how important the imagery they were presenting was in this fast moving digital age. As much as we might like to deny it our civilisation is image led and our eyes are fast becoming the sum total of our instincts. No matter how important and relevant Exhibit B’s message purported to be, its vessel or cast was black and some commentators have dared to point out that this matters. A black cast was only going to attract a black and friendly non-Black audience. I will be interested in the arguments of the purveyors of Exhibit B on how their imagery was the right one for this audience.
There was nothing complex about the imagery of Exhibit B, unlike Banksy’s clever use of pigeons. Exhibit B’s imagery was visceral and starkly recalls the trauma its likely audience should not be wasting their emotional reserve to deal with. This audience has bigger fish to fry in the grand scheme of their hybrid existence as products of a recent traumatic diaspora. That its purveyors did not see this means their ability to engage with Exhibit B’s purported narrative needs to be questioned. That they did not anticipant the framing of their imagery in this digital age means their credentials, as artists need to be questioned.
Exhibit B’s imagery was deeply flawed. Its purveyors argument of a right to freedom of expression is very weak and a creaky crutch. Freedom of expression is a tool, a means to an end, not an end in itself. With so-called rights come responsibilities.
By Depo Olukotun