The Vilification of Banksy’s Success

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.

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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