I’ve had on my desk an article about Banksy from The Guardian (the British newspaper) about since July 2007, when I tore it out of the newspaper when I was in the UK. The article is by Jonathan Jones, and what struck me about it was the strength of his ire about what he might term Banksy’s ‘dumming down’ of art.
I’ve read and re-read the article, thinking it would make an interesting peg on which to hang a blog post, and I have found myself feeling mildly irritated with Banksy myself, but I must admit that it’s only in this last week and the run up to Christmas that I’ve found the mental energy to write about it, and I was prompted by the local reaction to Banksy’s latest ‘intervention’ in Bethlehem: his use of graffiti in the town, ostensibly to drum up tourism in the area as a positive benefit to the local residents, has offended many, and some of Banksy’s work has been defaced.
Jonathan Jones’s argument is this: Banksy is a talented and humerous artist, but also complacent and conservative in his outlook. Yes, he can draw, and yes, he works hard at being a conceptual artist, and full marks to him for taking neither himself nor his subjects seriously. Banksy is, as Jones puts it, ‘a popular creation: a great British antidote to all that snobby pretentious art that real people can’t understand’. ‘Banksy is merely one of the lads, having a laugh’.
I visited Banksy’s own website, http://www.banksy.co.uk/, to have a look at what the artist says about himself, and found it quite illuminating. Under the tab ‘Manifesto’ he uses a quote from one of the liberators of Bergen-Belsen. The quote itself is many things: observant, admirable, compassionate, and its emphasis on the importance of individuality is fine – but somehow I find the context a bit distasteful and the effect overblown. Why use a moving, first-hand account of a the liberation of a concentration camp after the second world war as a ‘manifesto’ for jokey, politically pessimistic art? It’s as if the artist known as Banksy is trying to show us how deep and meaningful he is, and in trying so hard, failing… I’m not a proponent of the idea that all references to the Holocaust are sacred and therefore un-useable to anyone who wasn’t there at the time, but there just doesn’t seem to me to be any meaningful link between Banksy and the de-humanisation of people observed by Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO.
I’m afraid that I find a similar disconnection in Banksy’s work on the West Bank. He, along with a group of artists, made a trip to the wall in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank in 2005, completing 9 paintings on the wall itself. They show various things: ‘views through the wall’ of gorgeously coloured landscapes that contrast very effectively with the brutalist grey concrete, together with his more familiar stencils: a ladder reaching to the top of the wall, a girl floating upwards on a balloon, a dotted line with silhouetted scissors that suggests the phrase ‘cut here’. This year he has painted six scenes around Bethlehem, in order to illustrate the hardships faced by residents of the occupied territories as well as to promote the area as a tourist destination. The Bethlehem paintings have fallen a bit flat as locals have objected to some of the images, despite the fact that the implied insults are directed at the Israelis rather than at them. And I guess that sums it up for me: Banksy ‘did something’ for people but possibly didn’t think about the implications. Suggested references to people caricatured as donkeys or rats have caused offence, and locals have questioned whether humour is an appropriate response to the vicissitudes of occupation. So Banksy comes off the worse, looking superficial and ignorant rather than clever, and you have to wonder how much though went into the project… Sure, it’s generated a heap of publicity for Banksy (remember the marketeer’s mantra, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”), but it doesn’t help to position him as a ‘serious artist’. I wonder what comes next?