Banksy or Bankboy?


Once upon a long time ago humans made art so beautiful that it still speaks to us today. 35,000 years ago Upper Paleolithic people were adorning caves with their impressions of their world. Hertzog’s documentary “Cave of Lost Dreams” takes us deep inside, his commentary is thick with the sensation of being in the presence of those ancient people and it’s their art that brings them so powerfully to us. Expertly painted creatures run across the unhewn contours of the walls, a rockface covered in elegant hand prints sits alongside, a hanging outcrop is decorated with a vulva. From the multi-disciplinary study being undertaken in the Chauvet cave we learn that this was a ritual site that people continually visited for thousands of years. Other material evidence that comes to us from these people are the fragments of a small bone pipe, so if we know little else, we know they had art and music.

The Chauvet paintings show that our ancestors had anticipated the delights of moving pictures- many creatures are multi-legged which, analysts suggest, implied movement in the flicker of firelight. Carbon-dating reveals that the addition of a defining line to a brace of mountain lions occurred five thousand years after the original was drawn. It is no wonder that the researchers say that they dream vividly of wild animals –lions, real and painted and of the cave itself.

The development of human culture through the creative arts is an intriguing cipher: we look at the art throughout our history and the mindset of the time is revealed: religiosity, social conventions, apprehensions of beauty. As our cultures became more complex and class divisions codified our art changed too, it took on public and private forms and spoke to our different realities.

The art of western civilization has gamboled through many transitions in our few thousand years of documented existence and we set great value on this part of our material culture.

At an art opening a few weeks ago in a sleek well-appointed gallery, a woman came up to me as I was looking at an image projected on the wall, “Its crass” she announced squarely to stimulate some debate, I tried to throw her off with some unintelligible remark about Heidigger which made my friend’s husband snort at my bitchiness, but Madam misjudged me and was enthralled, she plied me with her business card and confided that she was a “high brow” investment collector from Sonoma.

I enjoyed the artists’ works in the show, but gallery settings are hard for me, the artworld vibe is difficult for me. I love art but my gut feeling is that art and money mix like oil and water: when fiscal value is invoked, commodity is created and the intangible magic of art begins to disappear.

It is not just that art is has become such a hot investment game, its very nature has become mega-loaded and difficult to define, especially as the last hundred or so years of art has taken so many forms and directions. The conceptual realizations of the last century have left` many feeling excluded, confused, outwitted and ultimately indifferent to art. The visual arts, superseded by film and encased in the business mechanism of the artworld no longer speak to all of us, it’s a privileged relationship mediated through education and wealth, cozy for insiders, bewildering and redundant for the uninitiated.

In 1917 when Marcel Duchamp gave up painting and exhibited Fountain, a readymade urinal, he scandalously proposed that everything can be art. Duchamp wasn’t the only intellectual that was challenging the perspective of art, the Surrealists, the Dadaists, the Cubists (to name a few) were diversifying the forms of art to address the proliferation of cultural expression. This trend led through the last century and gave us a dizzying array of artistic forms and our appreciation was reflected in the price of ownership. Duchamp himself retired from being an artist early in life, and concentrated his creativity on chess, particularly the “endgame”. Chess, he said was better than art because it could not be commercialized. He did remain involved in the development of art though, advising gallerists and collectors and founding the Societe Anonyme in 1920 with Katherine Dreier and Man Ray to promote the public’s understanding of modern art.

Chances are, whether you are interested in art or not, that you’ve heard of Banksy: a street artist, a self-created brand, his career was not kick-started by a savvy art dealer nor endorsed by critics. His earliest works were made on public and private property in his hometown of Bristol, sometime later his work started to appear in London and from there to cities all over the world. Stencil artwork and written edicts, comments, jokes and anonymity have been his trademarks- cute rats, picturesque children and acute one-liners [“Watch out for the Crap!” on the steps of the Tate on the occasion of the 2002 Turner Prize].  Banksy’s stencil work is very nicely done and his messages are easy to understand, thus he has many fans, some of whom have a lot of money and pay artworld prices for his work. The work he continues to do on the street is free of charge and his legal identity remains under wraps.

Last year’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was Banksy’s first showing as a filmmaker and he didn’t disappoint; the story of Mr. Brainwash’s haphazard and meteoric rise shows how Banksy has busted the artworld’s cartel-style money-making scenario, and the luminous dealers and museum directors have been, as the kids say, molded.

Through the exuberant and irreverent creativity of Banksy and his compadres, Street Art, formerly known as graffiti, (around since there have been surfaces to adorn) has finally managed to kick the art establishment’s time-honored pre-digital control mechanism to the curb. Ever since the internet revolutionized our communicative abilities, street artworks, which used to suffer from a rapid onset of obscurity, due to generally being painted out in a matter of hours or days, now has an eternal home online and has consequently aggregated a massive audience.

Banksy, Shep Fairey, Faile, Nick X, Conor Harrington, Paul Insect and Escif, to name a few, fetch prices at auction that match and often outstrip the market value of artists who’ve ascended through the conventional gallery system.It seems that the blend of street art’s situationist flavor combined with a blatant disregard for establishment approval has won the hearts of the public.

Not everybody loves Banksy though, the only debate among serious art commentators is whether or not Banksy is an artist at all. I’m familiar with the flim-flammery of art establishment attitudes so this doesn’t surprise me:  I fully understand how the business of art defines and defends it’s pitch. An unholy triad decides what is and isn’t art, namely, art dealers (commercial gallerists), the intellectuals (art institution honchos and their representatives) and the collectors. What enters the annals of the history of art is endorsed by the approval of these groups: a dealer invests his money and reputation and gets behind an artist, the collectors buy the work and then somewhere down the line the institutional establishment shows them too. Often the institution and the dealers collude and the artist’s rise is all the more meteoric… Accordingly contemporary artists often reference this mechanism and other weirdness around originality etc with the art they make, and to understand what they’re trying to say you’d better have some grounding in philosophy and the history of art. If you’re interested and you have a bunch of cash (think hedge fund) an art dealer will befriend you and fill in the blanks, so you too can drink the wine and shoot the shit confidently down at the gallery.  It’s a business and a monopoly, and in my view, utterly not what art is about.

I’m disappointed that Banksy’s contribution is so slapped down and disregarded by the mainstream art press. Banksy is their elephant in the room, perhaps even their nemesis.  Nevertheless Banksy called it — he wanted to engage the artworld on their territory and did so when he moved  from illegal street art to illegal gallery display: having first focused on the general public who walk the streets in 2003 he turned to the perceived art audience with his crass placement of  “UK Crimewatch has Ruined the Countryside for All of Us” ( acrylic on canvas, 2003) in the Tate Gallery. Critics barricaded the doors against him, Jonathan Jones , art critter for The Guardian, full of bile, wrote a show-off article about how as one of the Turner Prize judges  he’d never nominate Banksy or any street artist, snottily he wrote:

“The reason I don’t like street art is that it’s not aesthetic, it’s social. To celebrate it is to celebrate ignorance, aggression, all the things our society excels at.”

I wonder if anybody called Jones out on that as he scoffed canapés and sucked down his wine at the Tate’s 2008 Street Art exhibit, which featured a wide selection of street art but notably not Banksy’s.  Lewisohn, the curator of that show on the exterior walls of the museum, weakly explained away Banksy’s absence saying that the audience was already well-acquainted with Banksy’s work and had sought to bring a selection of street art from other countries and cities into view. Maybe Banksy preferred to outshine the Tate show with his Cans Festival:  staged just before the opening of the Tate show, in an abandoned tunnel near Waterloo station, it featured the work of  30 street artists and was visited by 28,000 people in three days. Perhaps world’s most blatant anti-capitalist artist was flipping off the establishment endorsed show with it’s corporate sponsorship budget.

The blunt charge of anti-intellectualism which disbars Banksy from the elite ‘real art’ club is difficult to take seriously –- really? Banksy’s graffiti is inane but Emin’s sprawling signage “My Cunt is Wet with Fear” or Hirst’s spin paintings are somehow not? I predict that as Banksy’s work soars in value, establishment attitudes towards his artistic credibility will change. As Banksy has noted himself, “Galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see.”

As the value of his work rises I predict that the artworld’s issues with his artistic credibility will continue to dissipate. Damien Hirst, currently the art establishment’s most canny moneyman, invested early in Banksy and has also collaborated with him on salable works. Soon enough one of those insider artworld outlets will bring Banksy into the fold and poor Jonathan Jones will have to figure out another way to get back onto the gallery supper A-list.

I liked Banksy straight away: irreverent and audacious on all appreciable levels, aesthetically pleasing and populist, (no need for a degree in the history of art to get Banksy’s message)  daringly  Situationist, (surprising peeps with art in their generally inane environment). He is bold and strangely modest in his anonymity, he comes across as a smart, anti-capitalist stoner type, I suspect he knows a lot about art history.

On good days I believe that Banksy really is fully inspired to liberate Art, the captive muse of capitalism. We have heard his art statement: art is everybody’s and you can say whatever you want, wherever you want. But does it ring true when your work is selling for megabucks in commercial galleries and auction houses?

On the one hand I understand that Banksy’s street art needs a considerable budget, beyond materials, the work’s execution has expenses which might run to: international flights and accommodations, assistants, cars, trucks, ladders, coffees, sandwiches and big bags of weed. Pricing a month-long trip to Palestine for three people, fifty thousand dollars seemed to be a reasonable estimate, this kind of cash must be coming from a steady stream of  artworld sales.  There is no crime in earning a living from art, Banksy’s official website states clearly that the artist is not represented by any gallery, galleries sell his work ‘second-hand’, inferring that the artist is just taking his cut. Well, kinda.

I see that he walks a fine line and that he is the fifth column in contemporary art.  While still putting art on the streets he also organizes exhibitions on his own terms  and accepts invitations from institutions where and when he pleases. The art that he embellished the segregation wall in Palestine shows me just how true his artistic aim is and his support, (moral and financial) of dissident street art groups, like the Russian group Voina, underlines his position.

Back in the Sixties Bruce Nauman made his spiral neon sculpture “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths” (neon, clear glass tubing suspension supports, 1967)  it’s a powerful piece, neon, at the time was used exclusively for  commercial displays, Nauman took neon and transplanted it into the territory of art and used it to remind us about the real message that artists try to impart.

For me the pudding-eating proof that Banksy is indeed a consummate artist is that he has given back a sense of self-determination to the viewer, breathing life into the  mystic truth of  an art environment where everybody is entitled to their opinion. It seems to me that in a decade or so, this shady figure has leveled the playing field and created a new agenda for art. When the conventional artworld stuck a player’s price tag on his work instead of fully capitulating to the establishment Banksy sidestepped to empower his  art paradigm.

One of my earliest memories is sitting on a little black toolbox in our garage, watching my Dad stone-carving. I was rapt as his chisel moved through the stone creating the whorl of a rose or the head of a lion. I knew the wonder of art as a child but when I was a curator and an art dealer I lost my connection to what art really meant to me.

Thanks to Banksy, the artist who dares to call the endgame moves on the artworld, I got it back.

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10 Responses to Banksy or Bankboy?

  1. Richard Weiss says:

    Very nice Billee! Your take on the unholy Trinity is spot on.

  2. Jake says:

    Loved this post. I’m a big fan of Banksy too & you elucidated many of the reasons in your piece.

    • rachel elliott says:

      oooo – ‘the captive muse of capitalism’…and many other expressions are honey on the page. That’s a great piece again. x

  3. hells yeah! let’s hear it for the mystic truth! great piece billie!!! ~Stephane Von Stephane a.k.a. “R. Mutt”

    • What positive outcome apart from his stratospheric bank balance and that of Mr Lazarides?

      Bring on the 21st century bonfire of the vanities……. ie. Burn A Bank$y Day 21-12-12:-(


  4. Geoff Greentree says:

    Fantastic piece Billee – Banksy also reignited my interest in the art scene. This blurring of cultural boundaries and methods is gathering impetus – Terence’s “increased novelty” – the energy here right now in the UK is electric with the spectacle of the Murdochs’ interrogation by MPs – a form of art theatre that’s liberating all much trapped creativity. I love “..the flim-flammery of art establishment attitudes”- sums it all up. Lots of Banksy in Brighton; saw a couple yesterday. Also did check out the Cans Festival some of which was great. Many thanks. really enjoyed that G x

  5. C. Heyward says:

    …when I am working I have learned to listen to the noises in my head that impede progress (in order to dismiss), from “this is brilliant” to “this is shit” “as good as” “blah blah will be impressed” “I see the finished project” “where am I?”; all the noises that attempt to define what it is and what it is not…everything that cheats me from presence; the experience of the doing of being absorbed in the moment surrendering to the gift…it is only after the fact of creation, of completion, that all the remaining defining noises however necessary or well intended become “meaningful” and possibly useful…what is changed in a woman in a red dress or blue? what matters is the essence of the woman/ the culture/ the gesture…all this is true …all the art world machinations and pronouncements are true because they exist; to examine the underlining greed/ commodification exclusion/ grasping tendencies/ appropriation and out right theft makes consistent political and cultural truths: not much has changed, the ball gets bounced around in a familiar game, so the challenge is to watch or no longer participate or value the efficacy of the game; there are more than two worlds; more than a single dialectic system; “b” does not always follow “a”; all tears need not fall; do’nt have to answer the phone cause it rings; what’s got your attention?

    …heading to the studio now….or a nap or a prayer

  6. C. Heyward says:

    go Billie…like Santa Claus and knowledge ofn death learned in childhood…perceptions change of necissity; we exchange one myth for another.

    • C. Heyward says:

      go Billie…like Santa Claus and knowledge of death learned in childhood, perceptions change of necessity; we exchange one myth for another and/or learn how to spell (weatherman)

  7. Type into Google “Original generation x artist” and who will you find in the First position,he’s my favorite Artist,not as famous as his friend Banksy though!

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