Banksy’s Dismaland opened August 22. A pop-up art exhibition in the small English seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, Dismaland is a dingy, irreverent take on Walt’s theme park. Billed a “bemusement park”, its attractions are often amusing. The iconic symbol of Disneyland, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, is falling apart, and the Grim Reaper rides around on a bumper car. There is also one of those stands where artists draw guests’ portraits, only Dismaland’s portraits are all of the backs of heads.
Dismaland is a subversion of Disneyland, and Banksy points, like a good postmodern, to the artificiality and consumerism of society. A painting depicts a mother and child with sunscreen and beach gear, oblivious to the tsunami wave about to overtake them. Inside the castle, Cinderella’s pumpkin coach has crashed, the horses killed, her corpse hanging out the window. Paparazzi surround the wreckage and visitors are encouraged to take pictures in front of it. In Banksy’s Dismaland, consumerism blocks people from reality. Brendan O’Neil from Spiked describes Dismaland as a joke, and if it’s a joke, it’s the kind where there’s nothing much to do except keep laughing at yourself.
The guests taking photos of the wreckage are part of the consumerism, and Banksy is part of it as well. In his interview with The Guardian, Banksy describes his park as “A place where you can get your counterculture easily available over the counter. A theme park for the disenfranchised, with franchises available.” Dismaland comments on consumerism by being consumerist itself. Tickets are hard to get, spray paint is not allowed in the park, and the fake security guards at the gate are followed by the real guards they parody. According to Guardian reporter Jonathan Jones, the show is more photo opportunity than amusement park. Jones says, “It is just a media phenomenon, something that looks much better in photos than it feels to be here.” Banksy is using his show, which comments on consumerism by being consumerist, to further his own brand. Perhaps that is part of the point as well.
But there is a richer kind of subversion than all these levels of irony that implicate the artist himself. Postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard (who also found Disneyland problematic) thinks everything artificial in a culture eventually overtakes reality until there is nothing real at all. If this is the case, then of course Banksy will be consumerist, and the best he can do is point out that his park, his park’s guests, and he himself are all irretrievably consumerist. But if we can escape consumerism, there is something lacking in Dismaland’s attractions. Jones, who experienced Dismaland as actually dismal and depressing, says, “In reality the crazy fairgrounds and dance tents at rock festivals are far more subversive – because they are joyous.” Joy is the real subversion, the real wild escape from consumerism. If there are still real, true things we can get to, then the most meaningful kind of subversion turns over everything in its way to reach them.