The Writing on the Wall

There is much to admire about Banksy. But is he any good?

There is much to admire about Banksy. His witty, striking and endlessly inventive street images bring gaiety to the nation. When his trompe l’oeil stencils started to appear on London’s dilapidated walls, they were fresh and daring. Here was someone doing something different and, what’s more, he had things to say about the state of the nation. He said them in an agitprop way, it is true, but that was preferable to the vacuity and pretentiousness offered by so many of his peers, the Young British Artists. His anonymity added to the interest, too: nothing was known about him other than that he came from Bristol. No one saw him work – he was the Scarlet Pimpernel of the spray can. These days, however, it is a small step from the radical to the mainstream. Almost as soon as his work was noticed, he was co-opted by the style media and acquired a reputation. Before long, the art world recognised that his appeal could be translated into cash. His work — viz the graffitoed tunnel next to Waterloo Station — now draws a reflex obeisance; he goes for six figure sums in the salerooms, he is deeply fashionable, he has become a brand. But is he any good?

Wit alone doesn’t make art, nor does a message. Banksy’s anti-war, anti-big business, anti-surveillance culture themes have become increasingly trite and tired. You might claim that he provides a visual commentary about the way we live now, but equally, you might argue that he has become a strident one-note polemicist. His kissing policemen, peace-protester rats and bomb-hugging children smack of student bolshiness. Look behind the initial impact — always instant and short-lived — and what you see is a talented, mischievous graphic artist who has been blown out of proportion. One of the defining characteristics of art, as opposed to graphics, is that it makes you look twice and rewards you for doing so. Look once at a Banksy and you’ve had all it has to give.

At Sotheby’s New York in May, as sums for Bacon and Freud reached vertiginous heights, Banksy’s Sale Ends Today came up for auction with an estimate of $600,000. Art-market expectations were high: this surely was his moment. The picture, though, failed to sell, and, what’s more, the crowd in the saleroom greeted its failure with cheers. It may be that they were cheering because they dislike his sloganising anti-Americanism, but it may be that they cheered because he had been rumbled. Whichever reason lay behind it, I let out a little cheer too.

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