Banksy – Artsy or Fartsy?

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Filed under: Art Pranks, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Pranksters

Best of British?
by Jonathan Jones
The Guardian
July 5, 2007

Banksy is the most exciting artist to come out of the UK for more than a decade – or so many people on both sides of the Atlantic will tell you. But is he really so much more than a prankster with a spray can? Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones gives his view

Banksy"™s Hansel & Gretel with Michael Jackson. Photograph: David Levene

Banksy”™s Hansel & Gretel with Michael Jackson. Photograph: David Levene

It’s not often you hear someone roar the name of an artist as if they were cheering on a football player. In Bristol, however, I once heard a man scream out “Banksyyy!” as he walked past one of his murals. He was in good company. Hollywood, the New Yorker magazine, Sotheby’s (which sells him), Damien Hirst (who collects him) and Glastonbury (where he recreated Stonehenge with a group of portable toilets) all concur that Banksy is the artist of our time, the rising star, the news. A poll of 18- to 25-year-olds recently named him an “arts hero” in third place behind Walt Disney and Peter Kay, and ahead of Leonardo da Vinci.

The cult of Banksy is a broad church, ranging from millionaire bankers splashing out on “street sculpture” to young book buyers radicalised by Iraq. His bestselling tome Wall and Piece is perfectly calculated to divert the leftist on the loo. Not only does it remind us that Banksy went to the US and painted “Fat Lane” on the sidewalk at Venice Beach – it even has a photograph of a fat American walking past it.

America was originally just a great target for Banksy – but then it unexpectedly took him to heart when he put orange-clad sculptures of Guantà¡namo prisoners in Disneyland. That was a taster for last year’s one-man exhibition in Los Angeles, the opening of which was attended by the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. There were massive queues to see the show’s installation of a living room with 18th-century pictures on the walls, containing a live elephant with its body painted pink and gold.

Suddenly Banksy was no longer a merely British obsession. A couple of months ago he got an accolade he could scarcely have dreamed of when he was spraying slogans on walls as a teenager – the New Yorker dedicated a seven-page feature to him. It makes funny reading if you’re British: as if describing a journey into some Dickensian slum, the author evokes the seediness and sleaze of the Soho gallery owned by Banksy’s dealer – on Greek Street, near some of London’s most expensive restaurants.

What are we to make of the Banksy phenomenon? Banksy, obviously, is not his name. You can’t help thinking he might have chosen a better tag if he knew he would one day be taken seriously by the art world. I mean … Banksy. Rival graffitists don’t have to think hard to turn this into an insult. Or they tease him about his supposed origins: “Go back to Bristol, boy,” someone has written beside his work on a wall in Clerkenwell, London.

Most people believe that Banksy – who has so far concealed his true name – comes from Bristol or its environs, and his surviving murals in that city have become objects of local pride. A couple of weeks ago it was announced that a new building development in Bristol, instead of destroying his street painting The Mild Mild West, will incorporate it and profit from the association.

Another wall piece by him, across the road from the council offices, has been protected, giving Bristol its own answer to the Angel of the North, Tyneside’s renowned public art icon, at a fraction of the cost. Or so Bristol tells itself.

We may not know much about Banksy as a person, but we know he’s ambitious. He went to Ramallah to paint on the dividing wall in the occupied West Bank, and this summer was booked to enliven the Glastonbury festival. Banksy makes open-air sculptures that are like gags from a Dom Jolyesque television show – he put shark fins in a pond in Victoria Park in east London – and this humour has translated easily into his indoor gallery installations. The resulting stardom must surely soon make anonymity impossible.

One anecdote he does tell about his origins is how, when he was painting graffiti as a teenager, he was chased by the police: hiding under a van, he saw a stencil-like plate on its chassis and decided there and then to use stencils to design his street art. That way he could paint faster and elude the law; but this also meant he could paint better, becoming something far more like a proper artist. Banksy’s stencil technique is now what makes his style so recognisable, like Andy Warhol’s silkscreens.

I decided to try to become a Banksy fan, for a day or two, in order to understand this modern institution. I bought Wall and Piece and for about 24 hours managed to get into the spirit of its quite-funny-for-a-minute-or-two look at modern life. Banksy is not just a graffitist but a guerrilla conceptualist. His gags have included surreptitiously infiltrating his own works into museums – the British Museum took a full eight days to notice his chunk of “rock art” depicting a stone age hunter with a shopping trolley, together with the caption crediting it to “Banksyus Maximus” – and has also redone Monet’s water garden with a supermarket trolley and bollards. I know you’re laughing. Now you’ve stopped. My favourite is the parody of Andy Warhol he put in New York’s MoMA, depicting a can of Tesco Value cream of tomato soup.

He put a wheel-clamp on Boudicca’s chariot by Big Ben and left a phone box slumped against a wall with a pickaxe stuck in it. He floated a child hanging from a McDonald’s balloon over Piccadilly Circus … and so it goes on. Banksy’s conceptual humour works just as well in the gallery context, yet I don’t think it has a long life there, as its jokes are so one-dimensional and soulless. If he had gone to college, he might be making good money in advertising by now. Perhaps the jokes are funnier, the images more emotional when you encounter them in the streets. Yet as I test that proposition, something rapidly makes me hold my guidebook to Banky’s street art – that’s right, there’s a guidebook, Martin Bull’s Banksy Locations and Tours – under tables in coffee shops, or skulk in alleys while reading it, in case anyone notices I’m actually seeking out this stuff.

What is it that constitutes Banksy’s appeal? First of all, he is talented – for a graffiti artist. That’s a big qualification. Look around your nearest car park or railway bridge or wherever the spray-can painters congregate. It’s like looking at wire wool. In a car park in London’s Shoreditch you see all this scribbling, and then you see a Banksy: a huge painting of a rat ready with a knife and fork to gorge on the city at its feet, beside it a TV set being thrown out of a window. Banksy is fascinated by trompe l’oeil – the art of deceiving the eye – and has quoted from “a man in the pub” a story about art and illusion that in fact comes from the writings of Pliny the Elder. Two painters compete to fool the eye: one paints realistically enough to deceive birds, but the other fools humans. Banksy’s TV set would only fool myopic birds. But you get the point: it’s far more ambitious and lucid than the graffiti around it. Banksy’s stencil method permits him to paint pictures where others just spray their names. It also encourages the use of icons and stereotypes, making his art a long series of variations on themes – and drawing comparison with Warhol from those who see him as a great modern iconographer.

Around London there are scores of one of his most persistent images: the urban rat. There are rats in gangsta gear with microphones, rats waving placards with slogans like Go Back To Bed or Welcome To Hell. Most of the rats are quite small, nibbling away low down on walls or in odd, out-of-the-way places.

Hey, wait a minute: gangsta rats and protest rats … that’s pretty funny, isn’t it? Perhaps that’s what makes him stand out. Banksy is a comic artist, as opposed to the tragedians who try to impress with their sublimity. He doesn’t take himself or his rats seriously. Not even the ones who are trying to blow up parliament. They crouch low behind the cover of the wall of the South Bank walkway, preparing to fire a mortar shell over the Thames at the House of Commons. The image is one of Banksy’s most effective. You contemplate the little rat warriors and giggle, but of course there’s a wan political pessimism to the joke. Banksy’s rats are about to fire at parliament, but they’re not real terrorists. They are mere painted rats, cartoon animals. There’s not really any chance of the dispossessed – which is what Banksy says his rats symbolise – mortaring the Houses of Parliament.

His terrorist rats make a wry comment on the weakness of protest in modern Britain, where people march against wars they can’t stop. Yeah, Banksy seems to be saying, we’d all like to mortar parliament; but what are the chances?

If you don’t try quite so hard to see the good in Banksy, however, the complacency and stupidity of this sinks in. Blow up parliament? Who wants to blow up parliament? What’s that got to do with democratic dissent? What’s Banksy assuming? Nothing very thoughtful. Nothing very coherent. That’s it, you realise – that’s the truth. This man has achieved something original, something uniquely of our time: found a visual style for self-congratulatory smugness and given a look to well-heeled soi-disant radicalism. So that’s who likes him: self-proclaimed enemies of the state, fermenting in their own self-righteousness.

Banksy is at least clever enough to avoid the leaden rhetoric of his imitator, a graffitist called Cartrain with the second R written backwards, whose paintings can also be seen on the South Bank, and indeed all over London, with their hackneyed double portraits of Blair and Bush. No one is going to mistake Cartrain for an artist. Banksy, by contrast, has an insincerity that can be mistaken for sophistication. Essentially, he is someone talking any rubbish that comes into his head, for the sake of it. And what comes into his head is a stew of received ideas – nothing really likely to challenge anyone. The easy humour that makes his work superficially likable removes from it any hope of being mad or poetic. He chooses grimly potent images, yet never has the Grim Reaper been less grim than on a wall in Shoreditch, where he gives Death a yellow smiley face. The jokes reduce underground culture to something rationalist and mild, with a cosy, chatty familiarity.

This deprives his art of the qualities that graffiti can offer modern art: its violence and chaos and paranoid mania. The French artist Jean Dubuffet argued 50 years ago that high art was exhausted, and acclaimed graffiti as art brut, raw art. While Dubuffet was admiring graffiti, Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly were being influenced by it. In 1980s New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat was seen as a raw hero of authentic street art, revitalising American painting.

But Basquiat’s art exposes Banksy’s. Where Basquiat’s has the dirt and mystique of true graffiti, dredging something from Down There, even though Basquiat actually came from a middle-class background and briefly attended a school for gifted children, Banksy is merely one of the lads, having a laugh.

If you really want to reach his hard, irreducible core of mediocrity, you have to go to Bristol. How this city must be congratulating itself. All over Britain, councils are forking out for expensive overrated works of public art. Bristol has its own local megastar, whose every prank is escalating in value! No wonder the council rushed to acclaim, and protect, Banksy’s would-be trompe l’oeil painting of a naked man hanging out of a window on Park Street, while a husband scans the street for his wife’s lover. Unfortunately, it is painted with the too-stark shadows you might see on a prostitute’s card in a telephone box, which make it less than eye-fooling.

And yet this isn’t about talent or lack of talent. One of Banksy’s most irritating attributes is his conservatism, as an artist who seems proud of the fact that he “draws”, rather than just making “concepts”. He appeals to people who hate the Turner prize. It’s art for people who think that artists are charlatans. This is what most people think, so Banksy is truly a popular creation: a great British commonsense antidote to all that snobby pretentious art that real people can’t understand. Yet to put your painting in a public place and make this demand on attention while putting so little thought into it reveals a laziness in the roots of your being.

After wallowing in this stuff for a while, I almost found myself hating Banksy’s fans. But actually, it’s fine to like him so long as you don’t kid yourself that this is “art” – and you don’t believe that for one second, do you? Sotheby’s well-educated connoisseurs surely don’t believe it either. Collectors presumably do, so the joke’s on them. Perhaps the rise of Banksy is the fall of Art – that is, the waning of art as the force it has been in recent culture. A decade ago, the art of the Damien Hirst generation pushed itself into anyone’s view of what was happening in Britain. Probably the rise of Banksy means that moment is coming to an end; people care more about other things. He is a background artist, as in background music: like all graffiti, his is essentially an accompaniment to other activities. Chunky sprayed-letter graffiti is a background to skateboarding. Banksy is a background to hating New Labour. The reason to admire Damien Hirst is that he makes art as if art mattered. In Banksy, the philistines are getting their revenge.

Other posts referencing Banksy:

To tag or not to tag, that is the question
Banksy was Where?
Banksy on the West Bank