Do We Love or Hate Banksy?
By Izzy Turner
From his roots in the Bristol graffiti scene in the early 1990’s, the mysterious Banksy has become almost synonymous with street art. His work is ubiquitous in its reproductions and his works are highly sought after, from the massive prices his works can fetch at auction, to his in situ work becoming tourist spots where visitors flock to see an original Banksy. Works range from the infamous photograph of the napalm girl during the Vietnam War, jarringly holding hands with Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, to a line of birds hold up placards saying ‘migrants not welcome.’ His highly satirical stencil graffiti is embedded with his anarchist political messages and a dark sense of humour. It is art designed to shock in its juxtapositions and ironic humour, and highlight the mass inequality and violence modern society desperately tries to ignore.
Banksy’s success lies in a combination of factors. He’s mastered a media presence and hype that is afforded only a few artists, all whilst maintaining an anonymous identity which contributes to the Banksy mystique. His political messages are brazen and bold, defaming governments and corporations alike for their hand in the corruption and inequality of modern society. The medium of street art democratises artistic discourse and experience, and is essential to Banksy’s whole ethos of not acting within established spheres of influence, and bringing his art to the masses. He is not making art for the art world or some white cube gallery, but art for the everyman on the street. His anarchical humour and anti-establishment, anti-art world, anti-a-lot-of-things ethos resonates with many.
But for every new mural and high profile guerrilla installation, Banksy attracts as much criticism as he does popularity. In essence, critics loathe him. His style is condemned for a ‘congratulatory smugness,’ ‘fermenting in his own self-righteousness. It is an ‘easy humour which makes it superficially likeable’ yet offers no subtleties, depth or substance. Charlie Brooker in a Guardian column said it looks ‘dazzlingly clever to idiots’ and the famed art critic Jerry Saltz called him ‘Mr Meh’. Banksy’s art is in short, lazy, obvious, superficial and lacking any artistic experiential significance. His pessimistic satirical viewpoint is also criticised. The New York Times wrote a brilliant article during the aftermath of Dismaland on sarcastic art as the new kitsch, arguing that like kitsch, Banksy’s satire operates in mechanical formulas, exploiting our desire for a sensation of meaning. Sarcasm presents conventional wisdom as insights, and the audience get to pat themselves on the back after they recognise the cynical and often repetitive message he is conveying. His humour grants a few ‘ha ha’s’ but sarcasm has become so blasé that we move on, disaffected by any other deeper emotions or significance.
Others criticise him for normalising what is essentially vandalism, whilst more critics are seeing the increasing disconnect between the graffitist who uses street art to connect with the everyman on the street, and the artist who has high profile shows in Los Angeles with work brought by Angelina Jolie. Fellow graffitists did not welcome his month long residency in New York, vandalising and removing his work, sarcastically commenting on his work online and on the streets. Critics hate him, artists hate him, yet his popularity and hype endures.
So what do I personally make of Banksy? I think that a lot of the art world criticism that is levelled against Banksy does derive in part from a certain snobbish belief that art cannot be intelligible to the masses. You have to decode several layers of hidden meaning, which you need some sort of master’s degree to interpret, whilst poised, looking thoughtfully through your hipster glasses. Art should be available to the masses and I would like to think we have moved beyond the elitism we would more commonly associate with eighteenth century salons then with a contemporary graffiti artist. However often Banksy’s work doesn’t push the viewer beyond a mere recognisable anarchist statement (‘corporations are bad’, ‘the government is bad’, ‘war is bad’ etc.) that we’ve all heard before. Some of his work is brilliant, yet some often lack any subtleties, deeper truths or thoughtful expressions in a way which art incomparably has the ability to do. So is Banksy really a visionary of contemporary art or an overblown graffitist? The debate will of course continue.