As private lives become increasingly public thanks to the digitally enabled, hyperconnected world in which we live, discussions around personal data and privacy seem more relevant than ever. In reality, though, privacy issues have existed in different forms for centuries, with the unquantifiable value of personal anonymity holding particular utility throughout the history of art, fashion, and music. Whether artists remain anonymous by choice, alter-ego, or because their identities were unintentionally lost to time, these creators are walking contradictions: famed and unknown.
The anonymous European painters who contributed significant work from before the early 19th century are known as “Old Masters”; marking a period when unidentifiable works were attributed to an invented name or artistic category to avoid confusion in cataloguing and allow historians to group like paintings. Some of these “no-names” are based on a single work, such as “Master of the Embroidered Foliage,” known for painting ‘Virgin and Child in a Landscape’ in 1491. While the artists’ identities will probably remain anonymous indefinitely, they will live on in oil paint and canvas for centuries to come.
Unlike these unintentionally anonymous renaissance figures, other artists remain incognito by choice, perhaps the most celebrated contemporary example being the England-based street artist Banksy. Emerging from Bristol’s underground art scene, Banksy’s dedication to his anonymity stems from the illegal nature of graffiti. Although the artist has never confirmed his identity, he is commonly believed to be graffiti artist Robin Gunningham.
Active since the 1990s, Banksy’s most well-known projects combine satire with social activism through stenciled graffiti. His art is displayed publicly on walls and self-built props around the world, while in recent years, his creative output has expanded to include film directing and works that satisfy the more traditional definition of ‘fine art’. Perhaps his most subversive commentary on the contemporary art world was Banksy’s “Love is in the Bin”, which initially sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2018 for nearly $1.4 million. Shortly after the bidding was closed, an alarm inside the work’s frame activated a hidden shredder, shredding part of the painting. The stunt was undoubtedly an act of defiance directed at both collectors and the overall market, while drawing attention to the transitory nature of the image and forcing conversations surrounding art as a means of storing value. Perhaps unsurprising given the amount of press attention the stunt garnered, the same painting sold again in October 2021 for $25.4 million, making it Banksy’s most expensive work ever sold at auction. Anonymous though he may be, Banksy plastered the news over social media for weeks following the momentous sale.
Despite being one of the most famous unknown artists working today, Banksy is by no means the first to adopt an anonymous persona. Given the illegal nature of graffiti, most street artists use their distinctive style and unique tag as a form of identity. The graffiti tag SAMO (written SAMO©), for example, emerged in New York’s underground art scene beginning in 1980 and was primarily associated with Jean-Michel Basquiat; though it was originally conceived through a collaboration between Basquiat and New York-based graffiti artist Al Diaz, who would later resurrect the tag.
While anonymity is a fundamental trait of artists who use the street as their primary canvas, other creators favor alter egos as a means of emulating an anonymous persona. Marcel Duchamp’s alter ego, by example, named Rrose Sélavy, first appeared in Man Ray’s photographs in the 1920s. Rrose Sélavy’s portraits alternate between masculine and feminine with a playful spirit that echoes the Dadaist nature of both artists’ work. While artist Richard Prince similarly took on the alter ego John Dogg – accrediting a number of works to Dogg in the late 1980s – which he created through a collaboration with art dealer Colin de Land.
In the fashion world, the centrality of the physical body is critical. There is a reason why designers prefer to present their work on live models walking down a runway than through static images of garments on hangers. It is a wonder, then, how Belgian designer Martin Margiela successfully ran his namesake label for over 20 years while remaining completely anonymous; prohibiting press backstage at his shows, never posing for photographs, and only granting interviews in the third person via fax or, later, email. An archetype for those who came after him, Margiela’s work remains widely influential today, while concepts of anonymity were, and still are, central to the Maison Margiela design philosophy. The brand often rejects the necessity of the body to fashion – frequently obscuring models’ faces on the runway – while garments are often marked by four white stitches in lieu of a traditionally branded label.
Margiela’s ideology of remaining anonymous has even spread to celebrity culture in recent years. The contradiction of fame and anonymity can be seen best in Kim Kardashian’s 2021 Met Gala ensemble. Designed by Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga, Kim’s all-black t-shirt gown with a matching mask and train obscured the media personality’s famous face, effectively transforming her into a blank silhouette, recognizable only though her trademark curves; perhaps a subtle yet direct nod to the fact that Kardashian is in fact so famous you needn’t even see her face to know it’s her. A similar contradiction is on display in the musical duo Daft Punk. The French electronic group appeared with their faces obscured beginning in the 1990s, using everything from Halloween masks to black bags to conceal their identities, until the releases of their 2001 album Discovery, at which time the pair started wearing robot-like helmets fit with LED displays and ventilators for performances. While Daft Punk announced their split in 2021, the music duo will forever be synonymous with their masks rather than their faces.
While the history of anonymity in the creative arts dates back centuries, the more recent introduction of cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies have given rise to an entirely new community of anonymous creators. In 2007, an individual going by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto began writing code for what would eventually change the landscape of the internet: Bitcoin. Despite the digital currency’s overwhelming success, the author of this code remains unknown, except for the “Satoshi Nakamoto” pseudonym developed by its creator (or possible creators). Perhaps it comes as no surprise that this anonymous figure has helped usher in an entirely new decentralized digital frontier known as Web3, where traditional notions of identity are as foreign as the idea of paying for a Starbucks coffee with cash. In a digitally enabled world where ‘users’ are identified primarily by a string of numbers, letters, and QR codes, who’s to say what identity will look like or even mean to future generations. Perhaps celebrity will be the new anonymity, where the act of putting a face to a name will be as foreign an idea as an artist like Banksy revealing his identity for the world to see.