Just before Easter, there was some big news in the world of Art. At auction, Banksy’s Game Changer raised $23 million for National Health Service charities. Not bad. Not bad for a painting formerly hung in Southampton General’s foyer to “cheer up the hospital staff” in these trying times.
This gasp-making figure easily overtopped the near eight-figure sum coughed up a little over a year ago for his Devolved Parliament, a hefty, gilt-framed canvas crammed with Chimpanzees on plush green benches. Geddit? The Palace of Westminster is full of monkeys! We’d never have guessed. It’s a simple visual pun, a conceptual wheeze and, to the mystery bidder wishing to remain every bit as anonymous as the artist himself, a ‘resilient asset’.
But is it art? Is its proper home a t-shirt rather than a gallery wall? Or as an illustration to pep up an article in one of the Sunday supplements? Would the image be better placed on a limited-edition postcard purchased, say, whilst exiting through the gift shop?
As Black Mirror creator and professional cynic Charlie Brooker said “Banksy’s work looks dazzlingly clever to idiots.” Succinct, maybe a touch unkind, but in the final analysis, true.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a good slab of satire as much as anyone in the free West. Cardinal Sin, a sculpted clerical bust altered to present to the world a shameful, pixilated face, unquestionably has both merit and message; so too the orange life jackets washed up in the foreground of his various canvasses entitled Mediterranean Sea View. (And the anxious-looking refugee Steve Jobs depicted in The Son of a Migrant From Syria really is very funny.) But I suspect it’s the fact they are representational, easy on the eye, is what makes them popular, not like any of that Modern Art my-five-year-old-daughter-could-do-better-than-that pile-of-bricks nonsense. Nonetheless, Banksy’s works come across at best as sour, smart-arse one-liners.
There’s no denying the man is one of the world’s most highly regarded graffiti artists, and sought-after in more ways than one. But isn’t placing a modifier like graffiti in front of artist like putting amateur in front of golfer or chef? It can’t help but instantly relegate a gifted practitioner to the ranks of the merely competent. So maybe that’s where the problem lies, what makes Banksy such a polarising figure. On the one hand, there are those like Alan Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, who believes “the artist distils society’s most complicated political situations into just one, deceptively simple image that is readily shareable in our social media age”. (Well, he would, wouldn’t he?) But isn’t that just an oblique way of saying we’re all suffering from a form of visual ADHD, that we enjoy the punchlines but are happy to dispense with all that messy intellectual foreplay? Because in the other camp there are those with higher artistic sensibilities all too eager to lump Banksy in with the authors of brash, self-aggrandising, and mostly indigestible designs (generously known in partisan circles as ‘street art’) splattered over every spare urban surface and then some.
It’s the age-old problem with graphic art – it’s clean, eye-catching, impactful, but at the same time disposable, transient, unfiltered and shallow. A bit like advertising. A lot like advertising, in fact: visually full of fat, sugar and salt. Hence our present culture binges on Banksy every bit as much as it laps up the warm, reassuring tones of a Jack Vettriano print or a metre square of cuteness in the form of a cow’s face. They’re two sides of the same mint condition coin. Nothing too alarming, nothing remotely controversial. They have the one-shot, flashbulb impact of a gender reveal party. Ooh! Wow…! Amazing! And then there’s nothing to chew on. A bit like a MasterChef contestant serving up a sausage sarnie with a sprig of Korean mint on top – nicely executed, even tasty, but not worth getting out the Villeroy and Boch for. If, as many film critics contend the Marvel universe is sexless, then the rough gems which drop unannounced into our atmosphere from the farthest reaches of the Banksyverse really are little more than nitrous oxide canisters. One exultant gasp and they’re tossed into the trampled grass, used up, but still kind of alluring.
One of the many orphaned grandchildren of Pop Art, Banksy is at heart engrossed in repackaging and presenting anew the world about us. So, where Andy Warhol gave us movie goddess Greta Garbo, Banksy’s homage to celebrity (in the screenprinted style of Andy Warhol) was of supermodel Kate Moss. Two homages are better than one, no? Still, if his timing had been better, had he waited a few years he could have knocked out a few Greta Thunbergs in primary colours. Mostly greens.
Given time, graphic images mature becoming first kitsch then vintage, then culturally important (show me a coffee shop that wouldn’t get a boost from a bit of authentic constructivist Soviet agit-prop on its walls), before rising on and up, like a genuine Toulouse-Lautrec poster, to the untouchable: the valuable. For Banksy, or rather his objets, all this has happened in double-quick time without too much validation or peer review. Outlier chic is in and I shall just have to process the fact as best I can. To be honest, I just don’t have the bandwidth for anything deeper than unresolved box sets at the moment, so it may take some time. In an era when almost everything is commercial and nothing outside of a few books and a handful of cinema releases has any real depth, should we be surprised? Maybe no one wants to be serious anymore?
There’s a fair chance that if the Israeli authorities had managed to apprehend and incarcerate him during his Bethlehem sojourn – once he’d completed the praiseworthy young girl floating to freedom over Ramallah’s section of the ‘segregation wall’ on a fistful of balloons – Banksy would have been instantly transformed into the United Kingdom’s very own Ai Weiwei. And in clutching the now caged underdog to our collective bosom, his entire back catalogue would have been elevated, validated in a trice. They are works of genius! He was right all along! He is a national treasure! How did we not see it…?
I so want to like Banksy (Julian Assange and Alan Partridge too), but I can’t help having a jaundiced view. Not for any contrarian reason either. I mean, the guy’s plainly not bereft of integrity. He’s approaching fifty, not broken cover – which in this day and age you might forgive as it would inevitably mean a summons onto Top Gear to have a crack at the fastest lap in a reasonably priced car – neither can I ever see him accepting an invitation to No10, glad-handing with the great and the allegedly good, though Cool Britannia does sound like one of his titles, wordplay launched after a few cans of probably the best cider in the world, late one Wednesday night. He’s also had the good grace to have an embarrassed laugh at himself with the screenprint I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit; and to his credit he still comes up with original ideas and he hasn’t branched out into double-entendres, although in these easily triggered times he wouldn’t dare. Not even after dark. So, we should be thankful he hasn’t tried to rework Athena’s Tennis Player Coyly Scratching Her Bare Arse. It’s amazing what we’ll let onto our cultural timeline these days, yeah?
The playful animals though, along with the cheeky, anti-social children, they’re all so right-on, so agreeably antifa, playing to the gallery, as it were; very much preaching to the converted. They don’t challenge. They might amuse and bemuse passers-by, but these covert acts are just faintly naughty, really, in the context of the times in which we find ourselves. They’re not a patch on Throbbing Gristle’s Cosey Fanni Tutti’s exhibition of used tampons or performance artist Chris Burden having himself nailed to a VW Beetle, or an achingly bleak museum piece like the Auschwitz Shoe Room but there again they’re not meant to be. They’re not meant to shock. None of it is extreme. No one warms to extremes anymore. Banksy’s intention is to launch a firework briefly into our field of vision, which puts him on a par with a TikTok influencer, his art a perfect fit for the Bitcoin age. Without a doubt those in charge of the Third Reich’s Chamber of Culture would have classed it all as entartete Kunst (degenerate Art) but for all its shrillness Banksy’s oeuvre will never fall foul of today’s censors. And none of it is as visually disturbing as one of Nelson Mandela’s shirts or any of James Dyson’s hideous plastic appliances.
In truth, I quite like a lot of Banksy’s imagery, its immediacy, the occasional seriousness of the epigrams, their frequent humour. His black books, like Nick Cave’s scrap books, would be very interesting to pore over. And I confess to being perfectly at ease with buying one of my millennial lads his Wall And Piece retrospective, as it’s like cool and the sort of thing us cool dads do to prove they’re still unquenchably afire beneath that saggy exterior and passingly aware of what’s going on in popular culture (even if we struggle to find its pulse). But I have no interest in the birth certificate behind the pseudonym. I’m sure HMRC have a handle on who he is (and if he has a publicist then he’s sure to have an accountant or two, too).
In hindsight I’d like to have seen Dismaland at Weston-Super-Mare. It’s not a fulsome wish like wishing I’d seen Kraftwerk before Florian died, but all the same I wish I’d made the effort. There again I think the genuinely funniest thing about it is that the ‘happening’ happened in down-at-heel Weston-Super-Mare not New York, Paris or London. From what I’ve see and read, it puts the K Foundation’s burning of a million quid on the distant Scottish island of Jura into perspective. Oh, how we all laughed up our sleeves at that.
Decades ago, back when I wasn’t living my best life, commuting to temp jobs on the tube, headphones clonking against the window just enough to prevent me from missing my stop, one of the mixtapes slotted into my Walkman featured Rip Rig and Panic’s Storm The Reality Asylum, the music rising to carry Neneh Cherry’s soulful voice as it implored you know whenever you can, get a wall with a spray can. Which was particularly pertinent as each day I was carried past an exemplary piece of graffiti – WORK BUY CONSUME DIE sprayed large on concrete pillars – a noble sentiment I wholeheartedly agreed with. It wasn’t half as amusing as Tottenham Are Carp [sic] I once saw scratched into one of the formica carriage walls, but it was certainly edgy, both a commentary on and a visible symptom of society’s various malaises. But, darling, was it ever art? No, just another silent scream.
By the end of the Eighties, anarchist punk band Crass had all but worked the stencilling thing to death – the commune’s founder members having begun the Exitstencil Press the previous decade – leaving Laura Ashley to give it the gentlest of coups de grâce in the Nineties, their instant designs being at the twee pastel fleur-de-lys rather than the snarly class war end of the spectrum.
Whilst we’re talking stencils, I’d far rather have a belting great Jasper Johns hanging on the wall. Maybe Map or False Start. For starters they’re grubbier (although way brighter) and feel somehow more subversive. Still.
I daresay digital age artists will soon be 3D-printing masterpieces untouched by human hand. Now that would be sincerely dismal.
When Banksy came to showcase his work in New York in 2013, fellow urban stencillers and taggers made their feelings known by defacing the blots he’d dared to put on their cityscape, their ends, their zip code. (Don’t you just love seeing denizens of the art world jealously scratching each other’s eyes out?) It’s a heavy irony that the most outrageous thing you can do about a Banksy appearing on a wall near you is to paint over it. So much so that anyone taking a roller loaded with Farrow & Ball or a tin of automotive aerosol oxide to it will incur the wrath of his suburban fan base. The recent toying* of Prisoner C.3.3 breaking out of Reading Gaol (courtesy of Team Robbo) is a case in point. [* toy – “tag over your shit”]
Just as the Parisian authorities were moved to protect Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery by sheathing it in perspex, safe from new generations of baisers de rouges à lèvres carelessly smudging its pale Derbyshire limestone into dust, so too have “Banksy’s” begun to receive similar shielding. There’s a subtle difference though. These adoring kisses, along with the Pont des Arts love padlocks, are considered vandalism, whereas embellishing a phone box in Cheltenham is, by contrast, a ‘public installation’ to be actively defended against, uh, vandalism.
Has the National Trust bought any pieces of his pith? Surely, ladies and gentlemen, it deserves to be preserved in its raw state. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had, restorers and curators of crumbling Empires that they are. After all, Banksy’s art is already in danger, what with being subsumed into and emasculated by popular culture. How else might one explain the sudden appearance of a faux Banksy giraffe on the side of the dysfunctional family farmhouse in Last Tango In Halifax, the BBC’s Sunday evening slot being about the cosiest and safest of all on the seventeen thousand networks now available.
Ultimately, the street art genre is as harmless as the everyday songs sung cheerfully by the proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four, as the artist himself wryly acknowledged in If Graffiti Changed Anything It Would Be Illegal. It’s of the people, by the people, for the people. The establishment doesn’t give much of a toss about it, except when it comes to the local Council trying to garner additional funds to pressure hose the excitable subcultural stuff off its masonry. Until now. Now us punters are in the realms of Capitalism as Art Movement. Or as Purple Brickwork might pitch it – how we arrived the phenomenon of Mural With House Attached. It’s the modern-day equivalent of King Charles Slept Here. It’s an unforeseen quirk of the housing market that the overnight appearance of a spray-painted image can add tens of thousands to the value of an end terrace. (One presumes Banksy doesn’t accept commissions, for a bung in a recyclable brown envelope.) Maybe Rightmove are already advising prospective vendors to ditch the gnomes and decant a formaldehyde-marinated shark into the front garden in their stead…?
One final stunt I’d like to see Banksy perform, when construction is just about complete, is for him to pop down the M5 to the next generation nuclear power plant at Hinckley Point – it’s only a stone’s throw from his reputed hometown of Bristol – spray giant sunflowers (after Vincent, naturally) on its dome and call it something like EDF-Kraft Nein Danke. How long should I give him? He’d better be quick, mind, because post-graffiti is already a term… I’d do it but. I. Really. Can’t. Be. Arsed. That, my friends, is as far as the concept needs taking.
Anyway, if you need me, I’ll be out doing some guerrilla gardening. Maybe I’ll get lucky. Maybe I’ll witness some Situationist prank by the Dulux dog.
Attributed to Brian Edge