Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Exit Through The (Insert Pun Here) or The Problem With Banksy


The Fighting Téméraire Tugged to Its Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838 Joseph Turner

I read on an internet forum that it has become fashionable to knock Banksy; this is confusing, because I was under the impression it was fashionable to like him; I just can't keep up. But either way I'm sure that one's opinion of Banksy can be informed by something more than social trends. There is an argument to be had.

Banksy's failure as an artist serves as an object lesson in art theory. Aesthetics 1.0 “When Art Fails”. If visual art does anything more than look appealing, it suggests the possibility of a non-semantic form of communication; the conveying of meaning without words. In other words, bad art is easily described, good art isn't. No matter what I tell you about Joseph Turner's depiction of boats docking on the Thames, no matter how sophisticated my description of his extraordinary renderings of colour, or how nuanced my meditation on the reflections of light bursts on the ships beams, no words can put anything like it into your mind if you haven't seen it yourself. I may as well be describing custard. But if I describe a trail of white paint around the floor of a gallery, at the end of which crouches a policeman with a rolled up banknote, you don't need to see this staggering achievement of art-as-polemic. And if I say “you know that famous photo of a rioter throwing a molotov cocktail, right? Well, Banksy has done that, right, except they are throwing a bunch of flowers” you can save yourself the cost of a train fare to Bristol, or wherever. Banksy trades in feeble pictorial metaphors conveying nothing that could not be conveyed in words alone. The great mystery at the heart of visual art, the very reason why it is said that writing about art is like dancing about architecture, is missing in his work. He can be explained, decoded, reduced. With great art we say “well you really have to see it”, with Banksy you just don't.
But many would argue that this is irrelevant, that Banksy isn't an artist, but a satirist or prankster, and should thus be judged not on the content of his work but on the effect it has had. Alas, this leaves him on even shakier ground. A Banksy exhibition brought a lot of visitors and money to Bristol in 2009. “Do you agree with his anti-capitalist political message?” asked a BBC reporter of a woman queueing for the gift shop. “Oh no, not really..” she replied. “So what brought you here today?” “Oh well, you've gotta have your Banksy posters haven't you?”. This airy, wholesale acceptance of his work has brought him to my very front door; the block of flats over the road has a wing named in his honour. The Cedars, The Gantry, The Banksy. I live in an area with a tradition of naming roads after local heroes; the physics genius Paul Dirac; the cricketing legend Arthur Milton. Banksy's enrolment into this particular hall of fame demonstrates how far he stands from where the satirist defence would have him be. Banksy is no outsider, no enfant terrible straddling the line between crime and art. He has more in common with Stephen Fry than Chris Morris. He's become a National Treasure. 'Banksy = Sell Out' – you see that sprayed around Bristol. He left himself vulnerable to such accusations by buying so heavily into a political platform of simplistic anti-capitalism. It takes a nimbler mind than his to successfully navigate fame and fortune with outlaw credibility intact.
Ultimately Banksy has failed in that he fails to upset anyone. The properties he graffitied quadrupled in value, so the most transgressive aspect of his work, the act of vandalism, is rendered toothless. Which leaves only the conceptual content: cheap visual puns. If these vague, witless jabs at free-market capitalism and the police state count as satire, if satire can be so toothless and whimsical, then that is worrying, because it means you have to do very little to be taken seriously. In a world where the encroaching police state and rampant buccaneer capitalism are truly frightening things, and the jaded acceptance of them as social norms, or worse, as natural states may end up destroying much of what is good about civilisation, I'd like to think there are heavier weights fighting our corner.

11 comments:

Lullabier said...

"The properties he graffitied quadrupled in value, so the most transgressive aspect of his work, the act of vandalism, is rendered toothless. Which leaves only the conceptual content: cheap visual puns" this is a very guessed thought

Nick Talbot said...

What's a guessed thought? Do you mean you are challenging the logic of my argument or perhaps the factual basis of the premises? If you look on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banksy you can find typical examples of how Banksy's work has incresed the value of property; a mobile home worth £1,000 was sold for £500,000 - a 500% increase, much more than quadrupled, so if anything i've underplayed my hand here. This sentence is a summary of the arguments explored above it. I certainly welcome any challenge to my argument; i often change my mind in light of convincing argument. Suggesting that something is a 'guessed thought' isn't enough though; you need to attack the logic of the argument.

dwjm said...

This is what confuses and frustrates me: Those of us who are passionate about social and political change sometimes don't have the means to engage with any kind of counter activity to support our positions. So people like Banksy naturally rise to the top of the movement and become its amabassadors. But as you point out, this activity in its simplest sense can become easily digestible and generates the potential to completely lose its actual message or meaning - the impact simplifies to the point where it becomes like activist window shopping.

I don't want to suggest that any of David Icke's more outlandish ideas have any weight to them at all, but the mad, cartoonish nature of his character, depicted by the media possibly, just take the sting out of anything he ever writes. He is turned into exactly the raving madman that anyone feeling threatened by his words would prefer him to be - then he is absolutely unconvincing as the general public are forced to assume he's nuts.

I think I'm waffling, maybe I've just completely missed the point. The thing is, this blog and all the tiny tiny sects of truly inspiring energies of change always make me feel sad because they are so unexposed. If Banksy-scale exposure serves only to dilute or destroy any kind of message designed to bring about a positive change, we don't really have a chance do we?

jasonanalyst said...

"bad music is easily described, good music isn't"

Do you think this applies too?


This argument is plagued with subjectivity. People would be crazy to think they are saving themselves a 'train fare' because they heard your 2nd hand description of a "rioter throwing a bunch of flowers". As if that's enough for them to base their opinion's on.

Its ludicrous.

Damien Hirst - "save yourself the travel mate, its just some colored dots on a wall"

Yves Klein - "errr, its blue."


Feedback from a guitar for 3 minutes can easily described. Until you've listened to it you will never know exactly WHAT your opinion is.

jasonanalyst said...

"bad music is easily described, good music isn't"

Do you think this applies too?


This argument is plagued with subjectivity. People would be crazy to think they are saving themselves a 'train fare' because they heard your 2nd hand description of a "rioter throwing a bunch of flowers". As if that's enough for them to base their opinion's on.

Its ludicrous.

Damien Hirst - "save yourself the travel mate, its just some colored dots on a wall"

Yves Klein - "errr, its blue."


Feedback from a guitar for 3 minutes can easily described. Until you've listened to it you will never know exactly WHAT your opinion is.

Nick Talbot said...

"bad music is easily described, good music isn't"

"Do you think this applies too?"

I don't know, it's not something i have thought about.

My two descriptions of Banksy pieces give a pretty good idea what they consist of. They don't promsie the possibility of a non-semantic form of communication because their content can be conveyed semantically. I don't know the pieces by Klein or Hirst you are referring to, but if their content can easily be conveyed semantically, I imagine I'd hold a fairly dim view of them also. I hold onto the hope that visual art can achieve something that words cannot. One of the reasons Banksy's work is weak is that he appropriates images that are already well known (such as the Pulp Fiction duo) so they often already reside in the mind's eye. By describing his slight alteration of them (holding bananas instead of guns) his work is done for him.

I'm very sympathetic to Banksy's anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian sentiments, I just think that they way in which he expresses these sentiments is glib and simplistic.

Lullabier said...

Ehm, Nick...that was a double fault: a fault of mine and a fault of Google translator! With "guessed thought" (which probably doesn't mean anything in English...) I wanted to say appropriate, proper, right opinion.
I wasn't challenging it, I was agreeing!

Nick Talbot said...

Sorry Lullabier, I'm too quick to think the worst! Apologies.

Lullabier said...

I'll be glad to excuse you if you will add a gig in the North-east of Italy in your upcoming tour! Is there a chance (maybe on October 12th or 14th)?

alex mild said...

Banksy's artistic credibility is completely bankrupt. Hes a bubblegum anarchist - cheeky chuckle fodder for the grandma's and grandad's. but its not all his fault...

Youthful rebellion is one of the most powerful engines of consumerism in that people who rebel think they are fighting the system when in reality the system needs rebels in order to have new ideas and in order to have new things to sell. Its fine to care - to be concerned about repression, or police brutality - or the irony of the monarchy...cos we can make money out of that! Just dont go putting your molotov cocktail where your mouth is!

On a more positive note - Banksy brings money and tourism to a city that desperately needs it and if thats all he's good for then thats good enough. His ten pence worth may well have contributed to funding the incapacity benefits of 'mentally ill' musicians the city of Bristol over and where we would be without them I dread to think.

Nick Talbot said...

I'm not entirely comfortable with your use of scare quotes regarding mentally ill musicians Alex; mental illness is being stigmatised more than ever in the current ideological backlash against the welfare state, where everyone on incapacity benefit is assumed to be faking it unless they can prove that their lives are utterly miserable and on the brink of suicide- but that's a separate discussion. Regarding your points about banksy, I wrote this on Facebook in response to similar points:
It's not really his fault that people respond to his work the way they do. He's likely motivated by the sheer enjoyment of doing what he does, just like most artists are. I imagine he's probably a totally sound
bloke. And I'm not aware that he makes any great claims for the socio-political import of his work, and he probably doesn't take himself that seriously. He did write "I can't believe you people buy this shit" on his website in response to the price his pieces auction for. I'm very sympathetic to his anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian views. And if he was nice to me i'd feel quite bad about slagging his work. But living with it in Bristol all these years and seeing the reception it gets, I just found it hard to keep my mouth shut (as usual).
I lived with someone who bought one of his pieces for £150, and its now worth £40,000. He contacted the Evening Post to tell them of his good fortune, and there he was, pictured grinning with his prized possesion. The person in question see
med to me to be perfectly typical of the Banksy fanbase; a self-styled rebel, an un-self-critical knee-jerk lefty with conspiracy theory inclinations who isn't interested in the real power structure of society because it doesn't involve Area 51 or the Illuminati, and for all their warbling about injustice and The Man, never bother to get involved in politics, which they like to think they are above.
I do worry that my view of Banksy was tainted by living with this prick. On the other hand, my best mate is an eloquent Banksy apologist.

I've noticed stencil graffiti of what looks like John Maynard Keynes around Bristol. That's pretty funny.