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Detail of a miniature of David in prayer and a fool at the beginning of Psalm 52 (image via the British Library)

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the tree of blogging must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of morose critics. And although here at Hyperallergic we believe that it’s better to dwell on the redeeming features of the written word, we do appreciate a good hate-read now and then. And this Banksy review by Theodore Dalrymple in the spring issue of City Journal amply fits the bill. You know you’ve stumbled upon something special when the first paragraph of a review includes both a note on the “international uniform of ghetto youth” and a bizarre comment on the race breakdown of the show at hand versus “other art exhibitions in Paris”:

Those at Au-delà were much younger, dressed mainly in the international uniform of ghetto youth, and not, from the look of them, normally frequenters of museums and art exhibitions. Among them also were many blacks, again not prominent among the attendees of other art exhibitions in Paris.

The piece then careens from patently indefensible generalization to a foggy defense of capitalism revolving around the ideas ostensibly advanced by Banksy’s work. I suppose the perspective is expected for a leaden publication like City Journal, a quarterly that should only be read with a snorkel on hand lest you drown in the gravitas. CJ, as it’s known to friends, is put out by the libertarian Manhattan Institute and as far as I can tell is largely written by and for mentally and/or physically geriatric males (the “Praise for CJ” page is a joy). At any rate, the article then proceeds to lambaste the unstudied anticapitalism of what he calls the lumpenintelligentsia, for which Banksy is an apparent avatar:

Of course, Banksy, as a spoiled child of a consumer society in which real shortage is unthinkable, has all the unexamined anticapitalist prejudices of the lumpenintelligentsia to whom he appeals.

Though one might infer it from his use of the “spoiled child,” Dalrymple isn’t a moralizing square. He’s hip to the excesses of capitalism. In a moment of temporary enlightenment, Dalrymple reveals this ironic sensibility:

[British supermarket] Tesco, after all, issues a “loyalty card” called a Clubcard; every customer is asked at the checkout, now sometimes by machine, whether he has such a card. The card’s name implies that shopping repeatedly in the stores of one giant corporation rather than in those of another, in the hope of a small price rebate, constitutes membership in a club. You don’t have to be anticapitalist to think that such an idea debases the concept of human clubbability.

Also, did you know that Banksy is corporate, like Tesco:

Here [Banksy] is particularly hypocritical because, while maintaining that pose of hostility, he employs lawyers, owns private companies, and is reputed to be highly authoritarian in his dealings with his associates.

And, eventually, the gauntlet is thrown:

Despite his wit, Banksy’s sensibility is both conventional and adolescent.

I mean, I guess the sociopolitical nuance of Tesco Clubcards makes about as much sense as Banksy’s role in the critique as an “anticapitalism” straw man. Why an educated person would think this way, repeating the charge of “adolescence” four separate times, seems beyond silly — it’s intellectually dishonest. And why Dalrymple is getting around to addressing Banksy now is anyone’s guess, but accusing a graffiti artist of being “adolescent” is like calling Sir Dalrymple inbred — it’s an obvious and vapid ad hominem attack that does nothing to advance an argument.

But someone had to deflate the false idol of the international ghetto youth, and Theodore Dalrymple was just the man for the job.

Namaste.

Correction: An earlier version of this story named the wrong Dalrymple as author. The writer is Theodore Dalrymple, not William. We regret the error.

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Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

7 replies on “Stodgy Brit Has Something to Say About Banksy, Capitalism, “Ghetto Youth””

  1. I’d have to imagine that on balance, this is largely an (over)reaction to the gushing treatment that Banksy has so largely received as of late, probably in no small part to his fairly recent documentary. Your point that Dalyrimple is such a latecomer in the critique is equally mystifying to me, as I think many people have more recently moved onto other artists, as we have become acclimated to Banksy’s MO.

    1. I’m not saying Banksy deserves praise or should be in any way immune to critique. What I am saying is that Dalrymple’s essay is *at best* a belaboring of an oft-repeated, simplistic, and reactionary response to his work. The bizarre generalizations about “ghetto youth” and black Parisians not attending any art exhibitions also cast significant doubt on Dalrymple’s possession of a non-repugnant worldview.

      Also, Dalrymple isn’t even really talking about Banksy. If you read his piece, you’ll see that outside of a few pejorative assertions about Banksy (“adolescent”), it mostly consists of the use of Banksy to conjure a straw man for the “anticapitalist lumpenintelligentsia.” Banksy is just a framing device.

  2. at one level an enjoyable read, at another I have to ask why spend the effort to write a review of a review? It would have been a home run to critically review the show and point out the CJ’s antiquated, mundane viewpoints in parallel.

      1. yea….i understand the geographic hurdle. So then I would (for myself) frame this as an article about a NY publication and its ass-backwardness.

        also…your link pointed me to a page that did not exist. 🙁 what was the title of the article and I’ll go grab it myself.

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