To hell with Banksy. The truly visionary artist of British pop culture is Charlie Brooker.
The iconic anonymous artist’s massive Dismaland project closed within days of an unauthorized biography's claim that British Prime Minister David Cameron once put his privates in the mouth of a dead pig during his time at Oxford. By itself, the incident would have been hilarious enough and would have certainly sent the UK tabloids into a tizzy. But the revelations regarding Cameron were made all the more tantalizing and just straight up weird by their proximity to Charlie Brooker’s Twilight Zone for the 21st century Black Mirror.
For those who have missed the reference (the anthology series has never been broadcast in the States but is available on Netflix) Black Mirror’s first episode, titled “The National Anthem,” tells the story of a British Prime Minister being awoken by the news that a member of the Royal Family has been kidnapped. The kidnappers publicly release a video — which quickly goes mega-viral around the internet — stating that they won’t kill her if the Prime Minister has live, unsimulated sex with a pig on television. The seriousness used to tell the unhinged tale is pulled off remarkably, mostly due to its being told through the macabre lens of contemporary social media voyeurism. This kind of amplified meta-realism has a knock-on effect of in turn highlighting the alienation of modern media in a way that countless hackneyed attempts simply can’t pull off.
Brooker has claimed that he had no knowledge of Cameron’s tantalizing little dalliance, which makes the whole sequence of events that much more stunning. This is, if you will, an example of real life imitating a piece of art about how life has come to render itself as a piece of art. The hidden corners of power and privilege come to be laid bare, along with so much else that makes our society one which the ghastly has become mundane.
The coincidence of “Pig-Gate” with the closing of Dismaland is naturally just that: coincidence. But it is worth bringing the two up because the former actually seems to have achieved a kind of critical totality in a way that the intentional spectacle of the latter may or may not have. Banksy’s “bemusement park” (his largest endeavor to date) is impressive by any measure simply for its sheer scale. And there were undeniably clever tropes at play too (What do Disney and the security state have in common in the post-postmodern era? How much does our contemporary notion of “fun” serve to plaster over the ways in which we are being screwed?) but a great many reviewers and commentators have reported on how the one-dimensional the resultant affect really is. Yes, of course “that’s the point,” as they have all pointed out, but for all the pomp, there seems to be a critical opportunity being missed here. In short, while it’s debatable whether Dismaland gave us a chance to peek under the covers and see a filthy and absurd reality for what it is, “The National Anthem” has done it beyond any shadow of a doubt -- albeit retroactively.
Taken together, the two raise some basic and frustratingly unanswered questions about what it means to make art in the late neoliberal era. How does one strike the balance between sincerity and irony when both can be integrated so easily into society’s character mask? What role does the unbelievable have when reality itself can make just about anything seem feasible? In that vein, here are some of those questions processed through the filter of comparison between Banksy and Brooker.
How, in an age in which many see irony to be dead, does one achieve the kind of critical distance that good and subversive art allows of us? Irony can be a powerful tool. But in an era when wink-and-nudge surrealism can be used to sell deodorant, if official policy, actual politicians and events can be more absurd and grotesque than yesterday’s surrealists could have imagined, what impact does irony have?
To put a finer point on that same train of thought: Breton once said that “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” This is no longer such an inconceivable act. It’s a common feature of contemporary life (or at least it is in the crumbling cultural keystone of the United States). If there is no real exaggeration possible in the violence and irrationality of the system, how does one provide with art the space to step back and critically assess the world’s disintegration in a way that doesn’t just revel in it?
To what degree can reminding us of what we already know be something that artistically engages us? If the absurd is always feasible then what does this leave for imagining possibilities?
What is the aim of a “bemusement park” in a world where everyone is already so bemused? Cynicism is rife today. It is also understandable and — like it or not — predictable. Critics have noted that Dismaland’s location in Weston-super-Mare is of course a direct comment on the cracked and faded splendor of England’s old vacation towns. But aren’t attendees already aware of this decay? How much more aware do they need to be made? What purpose would said awareness serve?
What does it tell us about the culture of the English upper crust that its elite university clubs employ such rituals as putting your member in a dead pig’s mouth? In the States, we’re certainly used to hearing about the depravity of rich, white college fraternities. Why such humiliation? Is there something about being the future rulers of such an unbearably inhumane order that makes debasement a legitimate outlet?
Was Dismaland less successful because of the ways in which its earnest self-consciousness made it less self-aware? Not long after its opening, Palestinian solidarity campaigners took very public issue with the park’s inclusion of the work of an Israeli artist with little mention of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Banksy has normally gone out of their way to express solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. This seemed a misstep. Does this misstep organically emerge from just how massive an undertaking Dismaland was? In attempting to achieve a spectacle so grand, did Banksy end up being more problematically spectacular than they intended? Was it bound to backfire?
It is a given that this episode will forever change the light in which “The National Anthem” and perhaps Black Mirror as a whole is viewed. But how? What does it mean that Brooker and company were able to be so — for lack of a better term — prophetic? There is no arguing that this is coincidence, but coincidences can often tell us more about the world than that which is so meticulously planned. The symbology of the pig clearly occupies a very precise place in the consciousness of Western society. Was Brooker perhaps telling us more than he was aware about the nature of the postmodern British political process? Or was he telling the viewer something that they already know deep-down but are afraid to talk about out loud?
What role would a relevant and culturally engaged left have in relation to these two different artistic expressions? At Dismaland there was evidently a news kiosk that included various anarchist and socialist publications. This is admirable, but what comes of it if Dismaland was — as some have described, and despite Banksy’s best efforts — more a reification than a mimetic rejection? And Black Mirror was, of course, made without any kind of substantial input from the radical left (this does not make it any better or worse mind you, just an observation). Is asking a question about how the left might find space in the contradiction between post-Facebook media persona and political power even a worthwhile question to ask at this moment in time when the left is so weak and not yet capable of decisively shaping the cultural conversation?
In turn, what does this mean for the intersection between the experimental and the popular? Banksy’s art has, it’s widely acknowledged, attempted to blur the lines between art and public space and thus between the experimental and accessible. Ten years ago it was notable but is now rather old hat. Black Mirror, though thoroughly integrated into the British culture industry, seems to come at the same question from a different angle. Is this blurring of artificial boundaries as subversive as it might seem at first? Or is it subversion itself simply an illusion nowadays? What must be done for new narratives that span from decay to freedom be made possible again? Neither Brooker nor Banksy seem particularly interested in asking this question, but it seems a very urgent one.
There are a great many fundamental differences between Dismaland and “The National Anthem.” They are different media entirely, conceptualized with vastly different needs underpinning them. What they share in common is a thematic focus on how that which is previously hidden in society becomes visible. Moving from that starting point, is the biggest difference between the two the answer about what precisely lies beneath? Which one is more truthful to the moment? Is there really only decay existing under the spectacle as Banksy says? Or is it a simmering chaos as Brooker would have us believe? Which one disarms power (with a capital “P”) more? And finally, which one allows us a greater amount of agency?
Xavier Pontoon is the pseudonym of a writer and surrealist activist currently living somewhere in the continental United States.