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.