RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today marks the last day of an unconventional exhibition that has captured the attention of art lovers and the media in New York City and beyond. The secretive British street artist known as Banksy has been leaving graffiti-inspired paintings and installations around New York in a month-long residency called "Better Out Than In."
NPR's Joel Rose has the story.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Every day, Banksy posts a photo of his latest work on the Internet. And his fans race to find it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: People, you cannot block the sidewalk. Make a path on the sidewalk. You cannot block the sidewalk.
ROSE: Dozens of people with cameras and cell phones crowd in front of the window of a thrift store on 23rd Street in Manhattan for a glimpse of a painting called "The Banality of the Banality of Evil." It would be an unremarkable landscape painting of a mountain lake, except that Banksy has added a Nazi officer in the foreground, admiring the view.
Kevin Sieg and Phillip Schoultz have been chasing Banksy across the five boroughs all month.
KEVIN SIEG: I really love the art. But I love the fact that he's using an entire city as his canvas, rather than having it in a studio or inside of an art gallery. You know?
PHILLIP SCHOULTZ: The places where he puts his artwork, it means just as much as the artwork itself. I've gone into neighborhoods I would have never ever, ever stepped foot in, had it not been a Banksy piece there. And that's part of the fun.
ROSE: Banksy donated this painting to the nonprofit Housing Works, which will auction it off to raise money. But some of his other new works were destroyed almost as quickly as they appeared, tagged over by local graffiti artists who seem to resent Banksy's intrusion on their turf. They're not the only ones who wish he'd go back to the U.K.
JERRY SALTZ: Banksy is a great promo man. Banksy is not an artist. Banksy is an act.
ROSE: Jerry Saltz is an art critic at New York Magazine. He gives Banksy credit for making images that stand out from the average graffiti because they're well-executed. But he says Banksy isn't as deep as his fans like to think.
SALTZ: He's completely conventional, anarchy-lite. His images are especially uninteresting. I mean, a dog peeing on a fire hydrant - meh. A balloon on a wall - meh. I mean, it's pretty pointed, political messages, but all so obvious, so obvious.
ROSE: But Banksy's defenders say his words and images are only part of the point. The context matters, too, says Will Ellsworth-Jones, who's written a book about Banksy.
WILL ELLSWORTH-JONES: He brings art to the streets in a way that very few artists do. People stop who don't go into galleries, who don't go into museums, and they look at Banksy.
ROSE: Ellsworth-Jones says the artist's New York residency shows that his range has grown to include video and performance-based pieces, like a stall in Central Park, where an anonymous salesman sold real, signed Banksy paintings for $60.
ELLSWORTH-JONES: And virtually no one bought them. People couldn't believe that it was a Banksy. That's a wonderful commentary on money and art, and the fact that you need dealers around you and the confidence to think that a Banksy is worth $60,000, when you could've bought one for 60.
ROSE: Banksy's residency had its low points, too, like the op-ed article he wrote about the design of 1 World Trade Center, the skyscraper built to replace the Twin Towers. It looks, in Banksy's words, like, quote, "104 floors of compromise" and "something they would build in Canada," unquote. That did not sit well with many New Yorkers, including critic Jerry Saltz.
SALTZ: Excuse me: We don't like the building, either. But that building is tall. And this is New York, and we need a tall building there. Who cares if it's ugly?
ROSE: Banksy's fans seem willing to forgive him for that stumble. And they'll follow him to wherever the last piece of the residency appears today.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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