Banksy and the triumph of banality
How the shallow culture warrior hoodwinked a generation
On October 2019, Banksy’s 2009 painting of Devolved Parliament (showing the House of Commons populated by chimpanzees) sold for a record-setting £9.9 million at auction. Banksy has reached the level of Blue Chip Moderns and Old Masters in auction rooms, books of his art are in museum bookshops worldwide and his street paintings are beloved by ordinary people and tastemakers. For anyone who has looked at his art with a sharp critical eye, the question is: how did such banality hoodwink so many people?
To answer that question and understand Banksy, one has to go back to his native Bristol of the 1980s and early 1990s. To many Bristolians Banksy is a folk hero; to others he is a sell-out. Banksy formed his political outlook in a city that is a hotbed of left-wing attitudes, from community activism and student politics to rave culture and non-conforming lifestyles. It was an obvious place for graffiti to develop into elaborate grand-scale street art. Being an anti-authoritarian progressive is utterly conventional in Bristol. When protesters stand in Bristol’s College Green with signs welcoming migrants they face not riot police or ridicule but sympathetic students.
Banksy was born in 1973 or 1974. His probable identity — Robin Gunningham — was revealed in a newspaper article in 2008, but since then the press has since largely respected his wish to remain pseudonymous. The few photographs of his face that have appeared have been suppressed by a PR company. The only detail from Banksy’s life that is relevant here is that he went to a public school and is far from the working boy made good he is portrayed as.
A friend says, “He went to one of the poshest schools in Bristol.” Banksy himself has never explicitly said in his interviews (conducted by phone or email) that he is working-class, so it would not be reasonable to accuse him of deception.
In the early 1990s Banksy became involved in a group of graffiti artists working in Barton Hill, Bristol. Playing down his middle-class suburban origins, he found an emotional home in the cannabis-smoking, risk-taking, anti-authoritarian milieu of working-class Barton Hill graffitists (“graffers”) working alongside the Bristolian anti-government action and rave/trip-hop scene — his early freehand efforts were competent but unremarkable. His art did not stand out until he adopted the stencil technique.
Only in ambition, scale and notoriety is Banksy different from those vandalising high-rise towers and railway embankments
Part of Banksy’s folk hero status comes from his anonymity. The moniker “Banksy” developed from his first alias “Robin Banx”. The use of a street name is a way of claiming authorship without revealing the true identity of someone who commits acts of criminal damage. “Banksy” proved to be both a catchy street name and brand name.
Banksy established his signature style around 1994. He used photo-derived stencils and black and white paints to make pithy motifs of everyday life. He says he adopted the stencil approach (not an original one) in order to cut down the painting time and reduce the chance of being caught. An alternative version came in a 2002 interview, where he admitted he simply was not good enough to cut it as a freehand graffer. As his stencil style has become well-known, he has used his signature less often. His style has become his signature. Banksy would never have become a national figure without a presence in London. He moved to the capital in 1999, shortly after painting his largest piece in Bristol — The Mild Mild West, which shows a teddy bear throwing a Molotov Cocktail at riot police.
Banksy’s detailed and precise stencil designs display wit, frequently using the physical location for impact and irony. His art pokes fun at authority in the form of the police and big business such as banks. Early art featured rats as ragamuffin characters in baseball caps and eye masks. They were criminals and rebels, standing in for graffitists, ravers and drug dealers. “If you are dirty, insignificant, and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model,” Banksy says. He has admitted in an interview his debt to 1980s Paris street artist Blek le Rat, who stencilled rats and figures in political wall art. Blek feels ambivalent about fathering a style that has become a worldwide money-spinner without receiving more than incidental acknowledgement.
Another Banksy trope is irreverent children with paints. For him, children are embodiments of the free spirit of humanity and act as truth-speakers. His children represent hope by undermining authority, disrupting adults’ consumerist assumptions and dissolving walls — specifically the security wall separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories, of which more later. Some pieces are outright jokes, with fake trapdoors painted on the walkways of bridges and walls designated “authorized graffiti area”. Later, more elaborate, pranks included a fake ATM spewing £10 notes with Princess Diana’s image and a telephone box mangled and impaled by a pickaxe. (This latter sold at a charity auction for $605,000.)
Many of these interventions were temporary and expected to last only a few days until council workmen come to paint over the walls. Most exist only in photographs. In recent years, it is just as likely that a property owner will have the wall surface cut away and taken to the nearest art auctioneer or gallery dealing in street art. Pieces that lasted only a few hours were Banksy- altered paintings placed in museums. These were amateur paintings irreverently defaced — an idea lifted wholesale from 1960s Situationist Asger Jorn. Sometimes these pictures lasted many days before being noticed and taken down. Again, these interventions are recorded in photographs which have been widely published, not least in books dedicated to Banksy’s art. The museum plants were planned like bank robberies in reverse, with the artist thinking how to position an item and get out unapprehended. The stunts earned widespread news coverage.
Banksy’s everyman art was taken up with alacrity by a popular press baffled and bored by art of the Turner Prize. Banksy’s art is accessible, understandable and reproduces well in print. Add to that the aura of a Scarlet Pimpernel of the counter-culture and the press have readymade copy for slow news days. When Banksy sprayed cows and pigs with graffiti in non-toxic paint, he made sure to tip off animal-right campaigners. Their predictable protests generated the required publicity.
Banksy broke into mainstream recognition in the US when his 2006 Los Angeles gallery exhibition (which included a live painted elephant) reputedly made £3 million in sales; among the collectors were Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Shepherded by agent Steve Lazarides, Banksy’s star rose and with it there was a rebirth of street art as a commercial presence, following the early 1980s first wave of street art in galleries. When one compares Banksy with another artist who started in the streets and moved to art galleries, we can see his limitations. A few years ago I wrote an article for the Spiked website contrasting Banksy and Jean-Michel Basquiat:
Basquiat’s art is alive because we see the artist changing his mind, discovering, adapting and revising. We see the art as it is being made. While Basquiat’s art is palpably alive, Banksy’s is dead — it is simply the transcription of a witty pre- designed image in a novel placement. There is no ambiguity or doubt, no possibility of misinterpretation. There’s no fire and no excitement.
Ultimately, Basquiat’s art is so much richer and more inventive than Banksy’s, which by contrast seems painfully limited and shallow. I concluded that “a century from now, people will still be looking at Basquiat, but they will have forgotten Banksy.”
Banksy deals in clichés of the progressive left. Policemen are thuggish goons or inept clowns serving repressive governments. Graffitists are individualists battling conformity. Old people are bitter conservatives and closet bigots. Children are enlightened seers of truth. Consumerism is deadening; capitalism is exploitation; authority is control. Classic fine art is stuffy and out of touch. With such adolescent attitudes, Banksy’s satire could hardly be anything other than stale. Painting attack helicopters over an English pastoral scene and portraying a Monet pond filled with dumped shopping trolleys is schoolboy stuff. (To be fair, established fine artist Peter Kennard’s version of Constable’s Hay Wain with Cruise missiles was just as feeble when it was discussed as social critique in the 1980s.)
Banksy has donated generously to charity connected to welfare and poverty and has also supported dissident artists. He has given valuable works to charity auctions. Yet he is far from an anti-capitalist rebel. He sold prints from his early years at whatever prices he could get, unaware that art prints are not produced like posters but are printed in strictly limited editions. One suite of Banksy prints was sold as limited to 250 copies but actually many more were produced and sold, misleading buyers. Later editions have been printed in such an ambiguous fashion that “disorganised editioning” is perhaps the most generous description. His studio churns out replica variants on an industrial scale. Unsigned prints have become a problem, not helped by his website offering digital files of prints for free. This ambivalent approach regarding copyright and reproduction presents a nightmare for the secondary art market. Forgeries are a persistent problem.
Some street artists admire Banksy — crediting him with making street art in the UK commercially viable and critically respected — but others bear him animosity. Banksy’s campaign of self-promotion is unending. In 2009 he defaced — playfully — a landmark piece of graffiti by rival street artist King Robbo in London that had survived since 1985 (albeit damaged). It was seen as a mark of disrespect. Banksy has taken pains to justify his action but the divide between Team Banksy and other aerosol artists and graffitists seems unlikely to be healed. To this day, Team Robbo defaces Banksy pieces.
For an artist, Banksy’s stunts — including breaking into zoos and stencilling enclosures — would seem needy and vain, but we should remember that Banksy is at heart a graffer; only in ambition, scale and notoriety is he different from those vandalising high-rise towers and railway embankments. Likewise, the glibness of his ideas is a limitation for an artist but a positive necessity for a street artist who deals in pithy memorability. Banksy lacks most of the characteristics of a serious artist: originality, complexity, universality, ambiguity, depth and insight into human nature and the world generally.
In 2009 an exhibition of 100 pieces and interventions by Banksy was held at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, financed by the artist and arranged in great secrecy. It proved a great hit, attracting more than 300,000 visitors and was the second most popular exhibition in the UK that year. A film about Banksy’s art was released in 2010. Exit Through the Gift Shop is an examination of the street-art scene and shows Banksy cutting stencils, painting and talking about his work. The same year, Time magazine chose Banksy as one of its list 100 most influential people in the world.
On 21 August 2015 Banksy’s theme park Dismaland opened in Weston-super-Mare, planned as a cruddy, inept, cut-price British version of the cheery American theme parks. It was an art-project-cum-entertainment featuring recognisable Banksy motifs, art by well-known artists made specifically for the display, humorous installations, deliberately “crap” merchandise and various jokes. The staff were deliberately offhand, bored and uninvolved – which worked because both staff and visitors were aware of the in-joke.
Banksy wisely decided to limit its run (36 days), which contributed to Dismaland being sold out throughout its operation. It was by all accounts thoroughly enjoyed by the majority of its 150,000 visitors. Dismaland worked because it was a pop-culture circus. This is what Banksy is good at — amusing, diverting and providing flippant commentary on everyday life in entertaining events. While that falls short of art, it is not an insignificant skill.
Yet however rebellious Banksy is depicted, his outlook is locked in unexamined assumptions of his teenage years. Consider his work on the wall around the Palestinian Territories. One interpretation of the West Bank Wall is that it is an aggressive imposition upon the Arab population of Israel, which deprives them of free movement and humiliates them. (“The most politically unjust structure in the world today,” according to the artist.) Another interpretation is that it was a necessary security measure that has curbed the wave of terrorist suicide bombings and knifings of Israelis.
Banksy’s trope of children who represent innocents seeking freedom appears in one image of a girl carried over the wall by a bunch of balloons. Fair enough — but what about the Israeli girls who had to live in daily fear of rocket attacks on their schools, but who are now provided with a little more security by this despised wall? Banksy’s vaunted anti-racism and humanitarianism seems strikingly absent from his view of Israeli citizens.
Banksy is a talented graphic designer with a flair for self-promotion, no more or less. He is not an artist
With this, Banksy is in lock-step with British progressive adulation of Palestinians. Banksy is no different from those waving Palestinian flags at Labour Party conferences. It seems that the street artist saw photographs of a pristine wall and thought of how to poke fun at authority; he never got around to learning anything about the complexities of the situation.
Banksy is a talented graphic designer with a flair for self-promotion, no more or less. He is not an artist. His work lacks the breadth and ambiguity to carry multiple interpretations vital to serious art. Banksy makes one-liners that are mildly amusing, sometimes clever, but never more than one-liners. There is a place for comedy and satire, but mistaking that for art or insightful social critique is foolishness. He is an equivalent to Ben Elton — a middling-ability trendy comedian who fills an undemanding niche in British popular culture. If Banksy intended to dupe British society into taking him half-seriously he has been depressingly successful at it.
The essential problem is not that Banksy holds unexamined prejudices or that he is mediocre as an artist; it is that he is lazy. He never truly challenges us because we can predict his positions on all topics. He cannot surprise us because he never surprises himself. He seems to have not learned anything about the world or himself during his almost 30-year career, which is surely a pity because even if Banksy will never be an artist of lasting stature, he might at least have grown as a person.
It is symbolic of a lack of public critical thinking that Banksy has grown so famous without his art being repeatedly exposed as not only shallow and conventional but derivative and occasionally plagiarised. Banksy — cosy culture warrior and peddler of pedestrian homilies — is truly a figurehead for our era.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe