With his new work Cardinal Sin, famed London street artist, known only as Banksy, criticizes the Catholic Church and questions curatorial tradition. More widely known for his clever works of public graffiti that question authority and criticize societal hypocrisy, Banksy’s latest work Cardinal Sin is a controversial three-dimensional sculpture piece that criticizes the Catholic Church’s involvement with numerous child abuse and sex scandals. The recent work is a replica bust of a Catholic priest whose face is distorted with ceramic tiles. The tiles are glued over the priest’s face to give it a pixilated look, as if to protect the priest’s identity. According to a December 16th Huffington Post interview, Banksy claims his work could be considered a Christmas present because “At this time of year it is easy to forget the true meaning of Christianity – the lies, the corruption and the abuse.” Happy holidays indeed.
Aside from the obvious controversy about the subject or intentions of Cardinal Sin, the placement of the work within the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool also questions curatorial roles and traditions. Banksy insisted that Cardinal Sin, though a contemporary work, be placed among the 18th century works in the Walker Art Gallery. For Banksy, this further emphasizes his critique of the Catholic Church by reminding viewers of the Church’s long-standing history with scandal. But for those within the museum field, Banksy’s direct involvement with the display of his work brings to light a current issue within museums – the often ambiguous and somewhat tricky relationship between artist and curator.
Traditionally, the curator – not the artist – has been the individual who decides the exhibition and display strategies for the particular institution with which she or he works, serving as a medium between artist and public through display strategy. It is the curator’s vision or understanding of a collection of works which is most often emphasized, offering the public a directed way to understand the grouping – often displaying pieces together by artist, subject, time period, or artistic movement. In the latter half of the 20th century curators like Americans Jermayne MacAgy and Walter Hopps and Swiss curator Harold Szeeman began emphasizing curatorial practice as its own art form, thus questioning the once distinct roles of artists and curators. This new breed of curators displayed often seemingly unrelated works together by abstract themes (time, dreams, etc.) creating new artistic statements through untraditional display techniques (MacAgy, for instance, often incorporated landscape elements).
Curatorial practice has since developed into its own form of artistic expression. As a result, many artists have decided to take control of how their works are displayed by becoming involved with institutional display strategy as a form of artistic expression. The most noted instance of this is when artist Fred Wilson blurred the boundaries between artist and curator through his controversial show Mining the Museum (a collaborative effort in 1992 between the Maryland Historical Society and The Contemporary). For Mining the Museum, Wilson requested and was allowed total access to museum collections and archives to re-configure displays for his own exhibition that criticized American ethnocentricity in curatorial practice.
Much like Fred Wilson, Banksy has taken on the role of curator by directing how his work and the 18th century hall of the Walker Art Gallery will be used to express his individual sentiments about the Catholic Church to the public. Accordingly, Banksy’s work is not just the small bust of a priest with a pixelated face; it is the entire gallery in which the bust is displayed. Banksy, in a sense, has re-authored the other works in the gallery by altering their function and has re-curated the works by displaying them in such a manner as to emphasize the theme of scandal. Audiences now understand these older works to be reflections of a tainted history. No longer are the large-scale portraits of aristocracy simply historic pictorial records; now they are supporting evidence for Banksy’s accusations against the Catholic Church. Without the sense of history provided by the adjacent 18th century works, Banksy’s critique through Cardinal Sin would only have half its meaning, thus limiting the scope of its impact.
Although Cardinal Sin is thought-provoking and to some perhaps inspirational art, so too are other works within the 18th century gallery. Should Banksy then have been allowed to commandeer the gallery and its works for his controversial contemporary work of quasi-sculpture? For art history purists, the answer is probably no, but for curators at the Walker Art Gallery, it could not have been easy to say no to Banksy’s demand. It may also have been in the Walker’s best interest to allow Banksy control of his display. Like many museums, the Walker wishes to remain relevant to contemporary audiences (to secure funding and to educate, of course). A high profile, yet enigmatic artist like Banksy is sure to attract, and has attracted, much attention to the Walker – creating public interest and enticing visitors of a diverse demographic familiar with Banksy’s infamous street art – therefore it is understandable and perhaps almost necessary that curators took a small step aside to allow Banksy to explore his curatorial skills. The role of artist as curator, in a sense, has now become somewhat of a necessity in order to remain socially relevant and financially stable since public and state funding for the arts is suffering worldwide. I dare say the 18th century hall of the Walker Art Gallery has never received so much attention from the larger non-academic audiences it is now receiving. The case of Banksy and Cardinal Sin then, fortunately for museums in Britain, continues to ‘pixelate’ the notion of what contemporary artists can and should do as it also keeps classic works of art relevant and interesting, though temporarily re-interpreted, for all.