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 much more than a prankster with a spray can? 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. 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. When it was announced that a new building development in Bristol, instead of destroying his street painting The Mild Mild West, it will be incorporated and profit from the association. I totally respect Banksy, because he is an ambitious artist. He went to Ramallah to paint on the dividing wall in the occupied West Bank. 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 humor has translated easily into his indoor gallery installations.
The resulting stardom must surely soon make anonymity impossible. I find it fascinating that his art is done illegally; 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 recognizable, like Andy Warhol’s silkscreens. I have always enjoyed making stencils, and my old Volkswagen van was covered with them. Spray paint leaves a clean finished look in a matter of minutes. The cleverness of Banksy’s work is also similar to some of mine. 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 humor 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. 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. Banksy is a comic artist, as opposed to the tragedians who try to impress with their sublimity. I have always been a comic artist, and a past instructor told me that art critics critique tragedy and solemnity much higher than comedy. Maybe, with Banksy’s help, the world will change. 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. 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 cozy familiarity. To me, this isn’t about talent or lack of talent. One of Banksy’s most interesting attributes is his conservatism, as an artist who seems proud of the fact that he “draws”, rather than just making “concepts”. It’s art for the sake of art. This is what most people think, so Banksy is truly a popular creation: a great antidote to all that snobby pretentious art that real people can’t understand.
“BANKSY.” Bansky. N.p., 19 Mar 2011. Web. 30 Mar 2011. <http://www.banksy.co.uk/index.html>.
Banksy. Wall and Piece. London: Century, 2006.