28 June 2012
Banksy goes straight from wall to coffee table
Wall and PieceBy Banksy<br>Century, £20
Five years ago I referred a little dismissively to ‘someone called Banksy’ in a piece about book covers in Eye (No. 39, vol. 10). Hah! What did I know? The man was already a cult figure and these days Banksy is everywhere. Google the graffiti artist and his name-checks fall somewhere between those for Damien Hirst – Banksy appears to be bigger now – and Tracey Emin.
For an anonymous bloke going around vandalising walls, that is a remarkable degree of impact. In a recent Evening Standard round-up of 25 people who give London its identity, Banksy was in there with mayor Ken Livingstone, comedian Ricky Gervais and Madonna. When someone daubed a mysterious red line across the city’s streets, a BBC TV reporter wondered whether Banksy had a hand in it. As a visual communicator, he is better known to the British public than any design star in recent memory.
So, as with any household name, there had to be a book. Wall and Piece has received front-of-store placements in bookshop chains that can only be had these days if publishers lay down serious money. Clearly, Century – part of the Random House Group – expects to sell copies by the truckload and it appears to be working. The book is a best-seller and, in an Amazon book review, someone of ‘almost pensionable age’ gushes with enthusiasm. Banksy’s authority-defying gestures press buttons for all kinds of people.
Those who bought his three little self-published books – Banging Your Head against a Brick Wall, Existencilism and Cut it Out – might be disappointed. Many of the images and texts in Wall and Piece have already appeared in these volumes, though you do get coffee-table standards of repro, bigger pages and a hardback binding.
What this compendium confirms is that Banksy deserves his reputation. His best stencil graffiti images work on every level. First, they are textbook embodiments of focused graphic wit. A surveillance camera in Marble Arch appears to be trained on a blank wall. Banksy climbs into its line of sight and stencils the far-reaching question, ‘What are you looking at?’ Second, they are often superbly apt pieces of site-specific intervention. On the segregation wall in Palestine, for instance, balloons spray-painted in silhouette lift a small girl off the ground – an image of hopeful resistance just the right side of sentimentality. Third – a key point where graffiti is concerned – they look good. Despite the rawness of method, the paintings have delicacy and grace; they often enhance the dull walls that carry them.
Above all, Banksy’s work expresses a real sense of an individual questioning, reacting and answering back. ‘The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods,’ he writes, ‘are the companies that scrawl their giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff.’ Anyone who shares this view of the way power operates in public spaces is likely to find a great deal of satisfaction in his graphic retorts.
The Banksy who comes across in the text is not always so appealing. He is inclined to self-aggrandisement, seriously suggesting in a caption that he alone believes in peace, justice and freedom. He tells an anecdote about how he was wrongly blamed for causing another boy a head injury when he was nine. Banksy concluded from this experience that ‘there’s no point in behaving yourself. You’ll be punished for something you never did anyway.’ This is understandable in a child; it’s childishly illogical in an adult. His taste for verbal paradox leads to statements that don’t make much sense. ‘Become good at cheating and you never need to become good at anything else,’ he says. Is Banksy for or against cheating? If he’s for it, how does he square this with his belief in justice and fair play?
Quite a lot of Banksy’s time is devoted to pulling the art establishment’s tail. He stencilled ‘Mind the crap’ on the steps of Tate Britain and he likes to put up his modified canvases on the walls of the Tate, the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art and see how quickly gallery staff react – a surprisingly inattentive six days in the case of MoMA, he claims. Banksy is right that the art scene is controlled by a relatively small number of people, but does that invalidate the viewer’s experience of gallery art? When it comes to the art world’s internal politics, the similarly anonymous Guerrilla Girls produced a far more insightful and hard-to-answer critique. Banksy is at his most effective in the open air.
In any case, he didn’t need to bait the galleries to remind us that he has created a form of
non-institutional public art that has a bigger audience than much contemporary gallery art. His work provides a compelling model of how visual communicators can annex almost any surface to say things that the authorities don’t permit in public spaces. ‘Banksy’, whoever he might be, has become an inspirational figurehead for those who believe in the democratic right to speak out publicly, so it is worrying that rumours of his commercial involvement with Puma persist. Is it a good or bad sign that this entirely self-produced book, with no independent text, has nothing to say about this issue one way or the other?