You may not be aware that the beaver, this unlucky, little, cute rodent, has suffered a long history of oppression and exploitation. On the American continent, the beaver, a traditional source of clothing and food for native people, became soon after the arrival of the European colonizers a main object of trade in the increasingly flourishing fur trade industry. Beaver pelt even led the English and the French to a brutal commercial war that ended up with the depletion, over-exploitation and over-starvation of beavers. Nonetheless, beaver hats remained quite a fashionable piece of clothing from 1550 to 1850.
As usual, colonization and exploitation were accompanied by a symbolic misrecognition that has lasted up to the present day. You may remember, for example, Jodie Foster’s 2011 movie, The Beaver, where a hand puppet named… The Beaver (I know, sorry!) turns from a cute, friendly fetish helping the main character, Walter, to recover from his severe depression, into a sort of manipulating and cruel incubus taking over his entire life. But there have been many precedents of this cultural devaluation of beavers.
Even Antonio Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks the champion of subaltern people, wrote a little fable, “The Fable of the Beaver.” It runs like this: “The beaver, pursued by trappers who want his testicles from which medicinal drugs can be extracted, to save his life tears off his own testicles.” What?!? Translation: the Italian Socialist Party was unable to oppose a serious and effective resistance to the rise of Fascism, and its tactics amounted to a series of self-neutering mistakes.
OK, but then why, of all animals, a beaver? It is because beavers had been extinguished in Italy since the 17th Century, as a consequence of indiscriminate and intense hunting. As a matter of fact, Gramsci’s Fable contributed to an Italian popular imagination that beavers are fundamentally stupid, idiotic animals, responsible for their own extinction.
It is in light of this long history of exploitation and symbolic misrecognition that we can better understand the sad destiny of Banksy’s little beaver. The story of Banksy’s beaver has three main phases that I will name Beaver’s Criminalization, Beaver’s Commodification, and Beaver’s Symbolic and Physical Murder.
Beaver’s Criminalization: on October 10 a little cute beaver appeared on the wall of a building in East New York. You can see it here. The stencil painting depicted the beaver intent in chewing a (actual) street sign, lying broken on the pavement. What was Banksy’s intention? A simple joke? An invitation to subversive rebellion? Or perhaps the beaver was a placeholder for Marx’s famous mole, chewing street signs instead of digging historical holes? Who knows? I am not an art critic. But for a literally minded member of the public like me, the message was clear: if street signs are down in East New York, it is the beaver’s fault!
Beaver’s Commodification: As if it were a natural process, soon after the appearance of the stencil beaver, East New York was suddenly invaded by hipsters, tourists, and tentative expropriators. On the very same day some people allegedly tried to chisel the beaver out of the wall. It was not out of love for art (or for beavers), but more likely out of love or need for money, keeping in mind that, to give an example, on September 2011 an original Banksy’s piece, Bird with Grenade, was sold for $228, 000 at Christie’s Post War and Contemporary Art Sale. Perhaps, it was in order to avoid transforming NYC into a fashionable outlet on a black Friday that Banksy anonymously sold a series of original signed canvases at $60 each in Central Park on October 13. If you are not among the few lucky buyers, you can still see the canvases here.
Anyway, some people from East New York took a more moderate position. Instead of chiseling out the beaver, they decided to charge visitors $20 to look at the rodent and take pictures. Honestly, they were absolutely right. Street art has traditionally denounced gentrification. The capitalist capacity of commodifying almost everything, however, has proved to be stronger than good intentions. Today, the presence of a Banksy’s piece on the wall of a building can very easily lead to vertiginous rent hikes, and, in general, street art presence is leading to increased gentrification. Since working class and poor people in non gentrified neighborhoods have notoriously rarely benefited from colonization by hipsters and other art-loving people, the East New York people were actually right in reclaiming at least a tiny piece of the cake. Perhaps Banksy agrees with me, as a video showing the transaction now appears on his website, together with the beaver.
Beaver’s Symbolic and Physical Murder: The poor beaver did not enjoy a long life, though. A rival unknown street-artist, who named himself Math, destroyed the beaver’s face on October 11, leaving the following message: “WE DONT NEED MORE RATS. MATH.” The disrespectful comparison of the beaver to a rat added insult to the injury, or better said: symbolic de-beaverization to physical destruction.
The moral of the fable? Even when street art struggles with its own contradictions and with those of NYC, the heart of global art commodification, we can be certain that the beaver will be the ultimate victim.