Essays

The Vilification of Banksy’s Success

by Tiernan Morgan on December 31, 2013

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Banksy’s 9/11 tribute, painted on the fifteenth day of his New York residency, October 2013 (all photographs by Hrag Vartanian unless otherwise stated)

In late 2000’s London, Banksy became overexposed. The free evening papers (the now defunct London Lite and The London Paper) published Banksy stories daily. There were endless photographs of new works, new records at auction, and updates on acquisitions by celebrity collectors such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Christina Aguilera. At some point, Banksy crossed the line between success and establishment hack. He should have seen it coming. The art world, with its unforgiving addiction to novelty, always sneers at popular success. The critical backlash was two fold. He wasn’t just a populist icon; he was also a street artist who had ‘sold out’. A best seller at the auction houses, his mocking iconography of Disney characters and scenes of capitalist abuses felt increasingly hollow.

Banksy’s monthlong New York residency, Better Out Than In, might as well have been entitled, ‘The Banksy rehabilitation program.’ In coming to New York, the artist wasn’t simply courting a new American audience. He sought to rehabilitate his image with his former fans — Brits like me — whose interest tapered off long ago. As he put it in an interview with the The Village Voice:

“Street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There’s no gallery show or book or film. It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something. I started painting on the street because it was the only venue that would give me a show. Now I have to keep painting on the street to prove to myself it wasn’t a cynical plan”.

Nathan Barley

Promotional image for “Nathan Barley” (2005). The Banksy parodies used throughout the show were created by Shynola.

During my art history studies, a running joke was to answer “Banksy” when asked the subject of your dissertation. His work wasn’t considered ‘proper’ art. He was a novelty at best. Nathan Barley (2005), a prescient Channel 4 comedy series that lampooned East London hipsters visually parodied his stencil style, associating his fan base with the young gentrifiers of East London’s growing art, PR, and media industries. Charlie Brooker, the show’s creator and co-writer, later penned a Banksy diatribe as part of his regular column in The Guardian, describing the artist’s work as “pseudo-subversive … imbecilic daubings … [which] looks dazzlingly clever to idiots.” But it wasn’t always like this. As much as it may now be painfully uncool to like Banksy’s work, the truth is that in the early aughts, almost everyone did.

Back then, the London art world was, and in many respects still is, cloyingly enthralled with its 90’s YBA legacy. If you picked up a British newspaper, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin are our only national artists. The mainstream media lazily panders to contemporary art malaise; auction price stories, controversies etc. So when Banksy made his entrance in the early aughts, it was if the vacuum of ennui had imploded. A new Banksy piece was a curiosity, something to share with friends. His exhibitions were major events, open to all, and non exclusive. A highlight was Crude Oils (2005), staged in a Notting Hill storefront. A signed waiver was required to enter, with visitors viewing Banksy’s work alongside hundreds of rats; gnawing, defecating, and screwing in every corner. The exhibition was fun, with little whiff of commerciality.

Fast-forward to Banksy’s New York residency, and one of the artist’s key themes is a calculated contempt for art’s monetary value. On October 13th, an anonymous market stall by Central Park sold original Banksy works for as little as $60. Over the course of a day, eight pieces sold for a total of $420. The artist’s point was shrewd; context is king. In an auction house or gallery setting, patrons would’ve queued to pay thousands of dollars for the very same artworks. Banksy’s stall was effectively a sociological experiment. It exposed our biased attitudes to location and display, whilst also demonstrating the malleability of our perceptions regarding worth and value.

Some attitudes towards Banksy (and indeed street art generally) reflect certain biases that aren’t relevant to the question of artistic skill or talent. The hypocrisy of these attitudes are more irritating than the press overkill that accompanies the elusive artist. The very same issues raised by Banksy’s market stall piece can be applied to those who argue that he is a street art sell out, or not a proper artist. The latter argument is more erroneous than the former. It’s a view expressed by the same crowd who deride Jeffery Deitch for curating Art in the Streets (2011) and pandering to populism. Banksy is an artist. Whether he is a good one is a matter of opinion. The art world’s snobbery is really a mask for unease. The artist has played a huge role in the popularization of contemporary art, especially audience participation.

At some point it became de rigueur for museumgoers to take copious snaps, a development driven by the audience participation that street art encouraged (documentation being key to street art’s afterlife). Museums are increasingly under pressure to revise their rules regarding visitor photography. While this trend is due to technological developments (smart phones, social media, etc.), no other artist embodies the Instagram generation quite so well as Banksy. Of course, he isn’t directly responsible for these trends, but as an icon of populism, he is indelibly synonymous with them, an obvious figure-head. The frantic need of the public to systematically document art experiences has its antecedents in those early Banksy stencils and the excitement one felt in discovering them. His impact, along with the greater revival of street art throughout the aughts, has thus triggered sensitive debates about participation and populism in the arts. It’s thus all too easy for critics to cite the instant accessibility of his work as evidence of shallow appeal and a lack of intellectual depth.

On the surface, the argument that Banksy is a sell out has a certain credence. Street art is typified as ephemeral, illegal, subversive, and un-commercial. But these qualities are simply characteristics, part of an unwritten code. Why must Banksy fit this mold and why should we expect him to? Perhaps the chagrin with Banksy’s fame is less to do with a diminishing street credibility, and more to do with the dissonance between his subject matter and his commercial success (i.e. parodies of Ronald McDonald selling for thousands of dollars). This explains why he attempted to mitigate the commerciality of his NY residency (excluding the highly valuable press coverage of course).  Aside from the market stall, other obvious examples of commercial contrition include his donation to the NYC charity Housing Works (a painting entitled “The Banality of the Banality of Evil”), as well as the final work of his residency, a signature ‘tag’ which, upon closer inspection, was actually an inflated balloon. When Banksy posted a picture of the work on his website, it was accompanied by a mock museum style commentary pondering the question of whether the interest in his work was just “a lot of hot air”. The self-deprecation, though masked with humor, points to an individual who has become self-conscious of his success, who feels a pressing need to rebut the arguments of his critics.

The balloon tag was Banksy’s eulogy to worthlessness. Given that his painted stencils are now frequently preserved under Perspex and sold by landowners and poachers, the balloon was a wonderful taunt. Within two hours of being placed alongside the Long Island Expressway in Queens, two individuals attempted and failed to take it. In the ruckus that followed, the balloon was battered and deflated (it’s now impounded in an NYPD storage room). Given the frenzy of interest, its fate was virtually inevitable.  “It could be worth thousands!” shouted an onlooker. But, the fact is, in it’s current state, it’s probably worth naught. The work personified the mission that Banksy extolled in his interview with The Village Voice; it was indeed a work “without the price tag attached.” In this regard, it was the perfect foil to Banksy’s current commercial crisis, and a fitting finale for his residency.

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The NYPD confiscates Banksy’s tag balloon, the final work of his residency.

In reality, it’s impossible for Banksy to completely overcome his commercial shadow. There are simply too many people invested in him, collectors who are determined to maintain the value of their assets. Though my enthusiasm for the artist waned many years ago, I admire his perseverance, his Rocky-esque willingness to keep fighting, to continue painting on the streets — and not just for rarefied exhibition spaces. But now the artist needs to switch focus. In order to counter the argument that his work is shallow or simple, he needs to create something new.

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  • Fiftyseven

    I agree with the final paragraph here. Time for something new. Spray art of people taking pictures with cell phones gets old quick.

  • http://artmagazine.nicholaschistiakov.com/ Nicholas Chistiakov

    Giraffe can’t swim, fish does that. But isn’t Mark Rothko’s, Ellsworth Kelly and Pollock and Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhard work is very very very very very very very very very extremely visually simple too; but nobody arguing their oeuvre for some reason? Nobody asked them to do something new? Ah there is too much written about their importance by big guys whom everyone afraid of. Personally don’t like Banksy art but wouldn’t you change style of your writing in your (for example)40-ies please?

    • Steven Stradley

      Pollock ran the drip paintings into the ground before he ran his car into a tree. His final works was a return to figurative symbolism, not the drip paintings that we know him for. He was in to process of doing something new as many artists do. An artist must evaluate if there is anything left in their current work that requires investigation. If not, time to re-investigate.

  • punktoad

    Banksy doesn’t have to do another thing if he doesn’t want to. “Shock of the new.” Would you say that Jimi Hendrix wan’t a genius because he died and didn’t play anything new? The fact that Banksy played every critique is genius. As far as the critique on the 9/11 piece, this is what I have to say about that: http://punktoad.org/politics10.html

  • http://www.r-y-a-n.com/ Paul Ryan

    Thoughtful analysis summed up nicely when it was said that the art world sneers at popular success.

  • Polimon

    Tiernan Morgan, like a lot of art critics, has nothing to contribute to the world, other than his attempt to make himself appear ultra hip by smearing a working artist. I agree with you that Banksy is already immune from this stuff, being the stuff of legend.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      Your dismissal of art critics is pretty comical. Funny, people have said the same thing about artists. People are wrong in both cases.

    • Daniel Fleming

      “I agree with you that Banksy is already immune from this stuff, being the stuff of legend.”

      An artist that becomes immune to criticism is an artist that no longer produces worthwhile work.
      …and I think you need to check your history a bit. Picasso’s later work is highly criticized, though some have begun to change their tune, Pollock stopped doing drip paintings just before he died because he was tired of it, Warhol is one of the most criticized and mocked artists you can find today (while still being loved by many)…and Duchamp, while a hero in many circles, is far from accepted as “part of the DNA” for the millions that don’t like modern art and consider a urinal in a gallery “ridiculous.”
      If someone ‘Goes beyond criticism” it doesn’t mean that they have reached this pinnacle where they can no longer do wrong, it simply means you’ve got your face so close to the work that you aren’t really looking at anything but the name and what it stands for. The fact you’re so quick to dismiss this rather non-negative critique as “make(ing) himself appear ultra hip by smearing a working artist” doesn’t prove that you, or Banksy, know any “truth” better than the critic, it just proves your aversion to anything that challenges this ridiculous notion that Banksy, or ANY artist, is perfect.
      Couldn’t be possible that a critic ACTUALLY doesn’t like someone you do could it?

  • NeoTechni

    I hate him cause he is a criminal

  • Carol Diehl

    Huh? Banksy produced a major show in Los Angeles in 2006, the Bristol Museum in England in 2009, and made a film that was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011. So fast-forwarding from 2005 to New York in 2013 is leaving out a lot that doesn’t support this hypothesis.

    • http://www.thebambamblog.com/ Tiernan BamBam

      Hi Carol. Your criticism is fair. I wanted my piece to illustrate the radical shift in attitude towards Banksy from his early days to the present – so the “fast-forwarding” was intentional. My piece isn’t a comprehensive survey of Banksy’s career. Instead, I focused on the art world’s dismissal of him, which is why I’m surprised that some readers think my piece is an attack on Banksy!

      When I say that he needs to “create something new”, it’s partly in jest (as I critique the art world’s “addiction to novelty”), but also sincere. The difference between a good and a great artist, is that great artists experiment, push themselves, and embrace radical shifts in their practice. Whilst there were touches of brilliance during his residency (the balloon tag, the market stall), my personal opinion is that Banksy could take his work so much further.

      • Carol Diehl

        Thanks for the extended explanation. Art, however, is not linear, not a trajectory where each work tops the last, but a spiral, where things build upon each other in unexpected ways. When you say “great artists experiment, push themselves, and embrace radical shifts in their practice” it would seem that Banksy did this, and not so long ago, in 2011 with “Exit,” which was not only a unique work for a street artist, but a unique work for a filmmaker. Look at Christian Marclay, who had the world enthralled with “The Clock,” now making paintings that are mediocre at best. Does this mean he’s gone downhill? No, it may simply be a station in the spiral on the way to something even greater than “The Clock.” Also I observed most of those who were most outspoken in their criticism of Banksy when he was in NY, were not familiar with him previously, and were reacting to his high auction prices without realizing that the works on auction were from the secondary market. I intend to write much more on the subject at some point, and will let you know when I do — and then you can comment.

  • Katchamberlin

    Great article, thank you!

  • Daniel Fleming

    Michael Jackson is beyond criticism? I know quite a few people that think he’s truly awful…including his music.

  • betribal

    I’m so bored with art criticism/synicism

  • MPReed

    Terrific article let down only by the last sentence.

  • http://www.thelondonvandal.com/ Keegan

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