Appearing suddenly in the cold, blank canvas of an English seaside resort town, Dismaland Bemusement Park caught international headlines when it opened its doors. A pop-up art exhibition by international superstar Banksy, the installation was heralded for the usual political targets: corporate greed, unsubstantial cookie-cutter entertainments, and a blind consumerism. The piece was open for a few days this year, attracting international guests like Run the Jewels (who participated by performing at the venue), Jack Black, and others.
When you walk through the doors, past the “optional” security team, you are immediately greeted with a complete sarcasm. A statue of an Orca jumping out of a toilet and into a splash pool, a rusty version of the Disney castle, angry and even gruff staff who’s enjoyment is squashed by instructions to perpetuate an ironic dissonance.
What was once a series of clever political stencils has since broadened into an almost underground media empire. Today, Banksy is just as famous for his theme parks, videos, and surprise sales in Central Park as he (or she, or s/he, or even they for that matter), as the graffiti that pops up around the world. And as the world’s most widely-known and popular street artist continues his extremely prolific, and extremely profitable, artistic career, we are forced to ask questions of the art, the artist, and the overall aesthetics.
After all, Dismaland is an obvious, sarcastic, and genuinely juvenile attack on the media empire that is Disney (also famous for theme parks, videos, and art). It plays on common targets in today’s world: media saturation, security theatre, even the treatment of low-level employees and the almost necessary dehumanization of contemporary economics. But it’s all performed with the tongue firmly in the cheek, an eye-roll that picks on people more than it picks on companies. And there is a certain irony of the entire spectacle. Dan Brooks probably put it best in his New York Times critique:
“When you see bad expression praised as good — when your Facebook friends share a sarcastic news report, or a millionaire street artist puts mouse ears on an actress and tells her to frown, you must also feel some injustice has been done. Kitsch should not get away with exploiting people’s desire to feel the art. How wonderful it must feel to go to ‘Dismaland’ and see through society! But how awful to see society embrace art that makes you feel nothing, that makes you think only about the vast chasm between you and everyone else.”
If the purpose of art, which itself is a dubious prospect and idea, is to evoke a feeling or moment of realization (a sort of epiphany), then Dismaland must be an intentional fail. After all, nothing presented appears to make a comment beyond “this sucks” and “that also sucks.” The targets seem to be families who save up thousands to enjoy a family vacation, people with fond memories of childhood entertainment. But here, those people are constructed as straw men consumers, as if the estimated £20m boost to the local economy was somehow apart from such a process.
Indeed, if Dismaland is a sound comment on anything, it is Banksy himself. In an effort to appear political, his broad strokes here, so apart from the precise incisions found in his street art, is a disregard of humanity to make a point everyone already knows, but with an teenage disregard that supposed to be legitimizing.