words Chris Townsend
Opening this week on the seafront at Weston-Super-Mare (which looks like a beach out of a Morrissey song) is a new exhibition by the graffiti-person known as Banksy.
Praise be to God! Just when we thought capitalism was winning, just when we imagined our feet were on the precipice above some awful Conservative-led abyss, our hero has returned! Take that, the man, Banksy’s back, and this time he’s set up a so-called ‘bemusement park’ named Dismaland.
Dismaland is a wobbly satire of the comforts of the theme-park, those Baudrillardian spaces of unreality and make-believe, and it offers instead a plethora of darkly dank images of despair and decay. It is being touted as ‘subversive’ and ‘thought-provoking’ (one giddy BBC journalist used the phrase three times in one brief package). It features an apparently burnt Cinderella’s castle, remote-control boats filled with model immigrants, and workers who have been instructed to act sullenly and unhelpfully at all times. It features works both by the elusive man himself, and a host of other notable artists, ranging from Damian Hirst and David Shrigley to Thingummyface and Whatsit. It takes aim at the full range of Banksy’s usual targets, with his trademark specificity: authority, Tories, war, Sea World, capitalism, climate change. And, of course, Disney.
It is, in other words, a painfully unoriginal spectacle. Let me be clear from the word go, lest I should wrongly irk Banksy’s devoted left-wing following: I’m the sort that would rather see corduroy Corbyn in government than chino Cameron, I am an advocate of meaningful and penetrating social commentary and political satire, and I am dedicated to the idea that artworks are to the great benefit of all lived experience and to society in general. In short, I think it’s both important that art engages the public, and that it directs the public consciousness to pressing social and political issues. But Banksy is just cretinous, and so are the majority of works he is curating at Dismaland.
Take one of the pieces by arch-twonk Damian Hirst. He has suspended a beach ball above upwardly-pointing knives in a Damaclesean reversal he has called ‘The Fragility of Life’. Because the ball is fragile in that position, yeah? AND THAT’S IT. It’s one of a range of works at Dismaland that is so cognitively empty, so completely unprovocative of thought, that it’s hardly appropriate to call them ‘artworks’ at all. They’re not really art, and they barely constitute ‘work’.
Banksy’s tedious offerings aren’t clever and you don’t have to like them just because you want to be seen to identify as anti-establishment / anti-capitalist / subversive / left-wing. How many times can the art world realistically embrace broad swipes at McDonald’s and Disney and decide that they are witty and poignant anti-consumerist statements? ‘Yeh, like, Disney is evil and stuff, yeah?’. Cheers Banksy. That obvious imagery has been done to death (all but literally) by Jake and Dinos Chapman, and it wasn’t original when they were doing it. And for an anti-capitalist artist, Banksy sure hasn’t done a bad job of lining his pockets, the naff git.
These are works that take aim only at issues of which we’re all already aware, and which add nothing at all to the discourse and debates surrounding those issues. A work by Banksy represents Cinderella’s lifeless body hanging limply from the door of her crashed stage coach. She’s surrounded by reporters, vying for the best shot of her corpse. It’s just like Princess Diana!! And Banksy wants us to see something sinister in the snap-snap-snapping of the media scrum. But wait, haven’t we read one or two (or three or four or five) stories about the role of the paparazzi on the night of Lady Di’s death, now over 18 years ago? What can Banksy’s work conceivably contribute, what can it possibly hope to achieve? It’s destined to be fodder for the cameraphones of people who think an old news story staged by Disney characters is somehow a triumph. But the worst thing about Dismaland might be that Banksy’s watery efforts occupy a space at the centre of public attention that would be better filled with actually meaningful pieces. Demand more from art than this.
But none of this matters, really. It hardly matters if Banksy is the genius that the lazy media hail him to be, or if he is in truth as soul-shatteringly inane as I see him. Because, as Charlie Brooker commented nearly a decade ago regarding a work by Banksy: ‘it was accompanied by the name “BANKSY” in huge letters, so everyone knew who’d done it. This, of course, is the real message behind all of Banksy’s work, despite any appearances to the contrary’. Banksy’s works are celebrated because they were produced by Banksy, not because they’re clever, novel, or interesting. Whatever the cause was of his inexplicable rise to success and popularity, it now has little bearing on how his works are viewed and interpreted — all that matters is that Banksy coughed them up. Dismaland is to art what ‘Made in Chelsea’ is to cinema verité. It’s social critique for people who turn to Russell Brand for their current affairs, and is a hollow attempt to do art or anything else. Expect enormous queues to form along the Somerset coast this coming week. Do yourself a favour, don’t join them.
Laughing all the way to the Banksy – A day out at Dismaland by Chris Townsend @Marmeladrome