In this essay, I aim to explore Banksy’s anonymous being, the difference between the original photograph of the Napalm girl by Nick Ut and Banksy’s contemporary version, the political messages behind this piece with contextual factors, the impact this has had on the public, the press and artists alike, taking all these points into consideration to discuss the possible reasons why ‘Can’t beat the Feelin’ looks the way it does.
From 1955 through to 1975, the Vietnam War cost the United States 58,000 lives and 350,000 casualties, and an estimated 2 million Vietnamese deaths. Being recorded as the longest war in American history, documenting the happenings of the war during, after and since has been a big part of educating people about the mass terror caused by the war.
Nick Ut, a photojournalist who worked for the Associated Press in recording the Vietnam War, captured one of the most powerful scenes in a single photograph of a naked 9-year-old girl runningdown a road near Trang Bang, Vietnam, after a napalm bomb was dropped on the village on June 8th 1972, by a plane of the Vietnam Air Force (Fig 2). Phan Thi Kim Phuc (Kim Phuc) survived by ripping off her burning clothes, although her back was still badly burnt, her screaming face showing the pain and horror of the bomb attack. The photograph earned Nick Ut the Pulitzer Prize for capturing the aftermath and risking his own life and Kim Phuc an enormous amount of attention for many years. Nick Ut took the little girl to hospital, where he looked after her until she recovered from her severe burns, 17 surgical procedures and 14 months later. Nick Ut and Kim Phuc stay in contact as can be seen in Fig 3; the disaster has made them very close: “Kim is like family to me, almost a daughter. In fact, when I went back to see her in the village after she came out of hospital, a lot of people mistook me for her father” (John Preston, 2003). Named ‘Vietnam Napalm’, Ut’s photograph is overwhelmingly powerful, but it is only discovering the story and information behind the photo that we see it as being this. Without the incredible story of the survival of Kim Phuc, this photograph wold not perhaps be as shocking and memorable as it is. Without the story it could easily have been just another press photo documenting the war, with no emotional involvement attached. It could almost be said that Banksy gives a newer interpretation of Nick Ut’s photograph; Banksy’s graffiti art could arguably be classed as a form of journalism, documenting and portraying strong political messages and happenings of today just as photojournalism does. The photograph is very iconic for the time and still is today. Banksy’s still powerful but contemporary work ‘Can’t beat the Feelin’ contrasts a little girl removed from the scene of a warzone and used as part of a montage with the popular American commercial figures Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse. (Fig 4)
Because the work has been stencilled, anyone who is unaware of the story behind the original photograph by Nick Ut, could easily mistake Banksy’s version as a girl running naked with overwhelming joy, hand in hand with the two stereotypical children’s characters hence the title ‘Can’t beat the Feelin’. In reality, a very strong message is being portrayed by the graffiti artist, as the juxtaposition between the parading happiness of the American commercial characters and the extreme pain of the naked girl is realised. Banksy’s work could show a number of different meanings depending on which way you look at it. In some respects, it shows the ignorance of American society of other citizens who are bombing and killing innocent people. By using two well-known American characters, they sharply contrast with what is really happening in the world. The people of America see the happy faces of commercial figures but the girl in the centre shows what reality is and what should be recognised. But this is what Banksy’s work is best known is for- he is an artist with the brains to produce witty and imaginative work. “As well as subversive political messages, his work is often strongly humorous…His work brings humour and escapism to everyday life, as Bristol City Council had recognised by protecting several of his pieces” (Ciar Byrne, 2007). Only an artist with passion and a drive to show his/her opinion will create pieces which look like this. Powerfully minded people will make powerful art.
But showing your personal opinion in art can be dangerous; his anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-establishment views could potentially get him into a lot of trouble. Being anonymous has solved this problem and given him the protection he needs for making his work. Being unidentifiable, he can afford to risk negative feedback from the public, press and other artists. Big things are being said by an invisible person and that in itself speaks volumes about the messages he is successfully conveying. “Perhaps his most provocative statement, and the one that generates the most publicity, is the fact that Banksy’s true identity has always been a jealously guarded secret, known to only a handful of trusted friends” (Claudia Joseph, 2008). No doubt Banksy’s work would look completely different if he existed as a real person to the public, open fully to the public realm and criticism. Maybe his graffiti art would not be so political and striking as ‘Can’t beat the Feelin’ is as it is now with an identity the public can associate with.
Another important point to make is the anonymity of Banksy also safeguards against prosecution from defacing private property which of course is a criminal offence, Banksy’s work also encouraging less talented imitators to commit the crime. “Is it just graffiti? Tower Hamlet Council certainly think so- it has promised to rid the borough of Banksy’s graffiti, saying: ‘Whilst some graffiti is considered to be art, we know that many of our residents think graffiti in areas where they live, such as local housing estates, is an eyesore’” (Ciar Byrne, 2007).
A reaction from the public, the press and other artists is something every artist wants, more than others certainly. The urge to know who Banksy is and the shocking stencil art that is created by his hand has gained both negative and positive judgement. The art market is willing to pay handsome sums of money for his work, but others cannot stand the thought of graffiti in any form and some perhaps offensive messages held within the work. In Wall and Piece, a book written by the artist himself, Banksy states: “People either love me or hate me, or they don’t really care”, illustrating Banksy’s appreciation that it is not to everyone’s taste (Banksy, 2006). The fascination with a hidden identity has gained a successful publicity for Banksy, and therefore without the anonymity, ‘Can’t beat the Feelin’ and other work would not be so shocking and contain such a level of dark humour. Successfully staying anonymous is an extremely hard task to keep up, helped by the way in which Banksy’s art is produced. Whilst running away and hiding from the police as a teenage boy, Banksy recounts the way in which he began to use stencils. “As I lay there listening to the cops on the tracks I realised I had to cut my painting time in half or give it up altogether. I was staring up at the stencilled plate on the bottom of the fuel tank then I realised I could just copy that style and make each letter three feet high” (Banksy, 2006). Using stencils to efficiently spray over onto a wall makes quick progress and a speedy getaway in case the artist is noticed, the work provocative an snappy and completed in a couple of minutes, this a big part in the way the napalm girl and the two American commercial characters look. The stencil has affected the original photograph of Kim Phuc, adding more contrast between black and white so that she almost takes on a look of happiness rather than pain as stated before. It has the same effect on Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, the three figures look like they are all from the same time; the block colours of black and white remind me of the printed style of Andy Warhol (Fig 5), as many of his work consists of very block colours as Banksy’s does, but also the Victorian side- profile silhouettes (Fig 6), the block black colour is similar to ‘Can’t beat the Feelin’. Reactions from the public have undoubtedly affected the way this piece of work looks; the stencil technique is something that was introduced as a way to escape the public, and whether negative or positive, feedback has urged Banksy to carry on making his work to see the different reactions he can gain, and the emotional reactions which Banksy hopes will change people’s views of certain political issues in the modern world.
So why does Banksy’s ‘Can’t beat the Feelin’ look the way it does? A combination of the artist’s own strong views, events which happen in the artist’s life which provide inspiration and the opinions to make Banksy’s political and provocative pieces are the reasons for why the work looks like this, as well as the stories behind the work which once the viewer is aware of, it effects the way the person may see it, for example, researching the incredible story of Kim Phuc (the little girl in the original photograph) can affect the emotional involvement of the piece in the original as well as Banksy’s version.
QuotesJohn Preston. (2007). Nick Ut: Double Negative, Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3670224/Nick-Ut-Double-Negative.html Last accessed 06th Dec 2011.
Ciar Byrne. (2007). The Big Question: Just Who is Banksy and what is all the fuss about his work?. Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-398448.html. Last accessed 07th Dec 2011.
Claudia Joseph. (2008). Graffiti artist Banksy unmasked...as a former public schoolboy from middle-class suburbia. Available: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1034538/Graffiti-artist-Banksy-unmasked---public-schoolboy-middle-class-suburbia.html. Last accessed 08th Dec 2011.
Banksy. (2006). Wall and Piece. 2nd ed. London: Century. p238.
Hans Werner Holzwarth (2003). 100 Contemporary Artists.