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Don’t be a snob about Banksy The troublemaker has become a hate figure for those afflicted by Cultural Cringe

Banksy is actually a Good Bloke (Photo by Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images)

Banksy is actually a Good Bloke (Photo by Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images)


March 25, 2021   5 mins

When we first moved from South London down to Brighton, in 2008, we rented a first-floor apartment with a shared lobby. One day a heavy duty cardboard tube appeared in the lobby, with my name and address on it. It looked a little battered, no doubt partly because it had been redirected from my old London address. I had no idea what it was nor, oddly, any real curiosity to find out. I suspected it was the latest instalment in my parents’s long term project to erase every trace of me from their Norfolk bungalow, as if my stuff was the principle source of the hoarded clutter they were drowning in.

Eventually I got around to carrying it upstairs. I prised open the plastic-cupped end, pulled out the rolled-up sheet of heavy-weight cartridge paper inside, laid it flat on the dining table and discovered that it was a Banksy. Not a print, an original — spray-painted by the man himself. It was accompanied by an explanatory hand-written and signed letter. It was, I gradually realised, probably quite valuable. Today, it is almost certainly the most valuable thing I own, although nowhere near as valuable as “Game Changer”, which this week sold for a record £14.4million at auction, with the artist donating the money to health charities.

Banksy had sent me this gift as a gesture of thanks, for having unwittingly nicked a joke of mine for his first little book, Existencillism. “It is rather ironic,” the joke goes, “that the favourite drink of the homeless, should be a beer called Tennent’s”. The joke works better on stage, phonetically, than on the page. But it was a nice counterpoint to the image opposite, one of his most famous, a fallen winged angel, originally painted on a grimy brick recess in a wall in Old Street. The joke had been told to him by a mate, it turned out, who had no doubt forgotten where he heard it.

My wife gave me the book as a stocking filler, and when I found the joke I contacted him via the email address at the back. This was still relatively easy back then. He emailed back and apologised and later we spoke briefly on the phone and arranged to meet, in a cafĂ© bar opposite Herne Hill station, but like the shy woodland creature he is, something must have startled him and he changed his mind. We never met, and I’m really quite relieved about that. He works better for me, as for everyone else, as a slightly magical figure, like something from a Russian fairy tale, a phantom that might steal your best horse and ride it into a sweat at night before returning it to your stable.

I mention all this because Banksy has emerged as a kind of hate figure for those afflicted by Cultural Cringe. The conviction that we are an irredeemably philistine people is largely a Remainer syndrome — how can you just walk away from croissants by the Seine? — but by no means exclusively. So, before I come, not to defend Banksy per se but perhaps to urge a sense of proportion to those convulsed with shame, I want you to understand why I might think that whatever else he is, Banksy is a Good Bloke. Because it really is extraordinary how many people seem to think he’s such a wanker.

His latest outrage was to win a very dubious popularity contest, when he really should know better. A company called Art Supplies had commissioned a survey of the “most popular” artists in all the countries in the world, as determined by Google searches. And to our eternal shame, it appears, number one in the UK was the Bristolian wall-botherer himself. Not just in the UK, to be fair, but in France (what? But
 but
 croissants! By the Seine!) and in Japan and Russia.

The most obvious thing to say about the poll is that, like every other poll, it doesn’t tell us what it purports to. UnHerd’s Tom Chivers published a handy guide this month on How to Read Numbers, about those slippery, shape-shifting, whispering half-truths we call statistics, and he could have based half the book on crap like this. For a start, there are any number of reasons why people might Google “Banksy” that have no bearing on whether he was their favourite artist — ranging from “Do we know who he is yet so I can send him some hate mail?” to “Who is this ‘Banksy’ that my husband seems so annoyed by?”

But even if he is being searched primarily by fans, it’s pretty obvious why he’s being searched more than Rembrandt, Titian or Vermeer, isn’t it? It’s because he’s alive. He might do something. Or, more likely, just has. And that interest is not just understandable, it is healthy.

When the NME was still capable of leaving oily grime on your fingers, it used to run a poll every few years on the Greatest Album of All Time. The actual greatest albums of all time — Astral Weeks, Pet Sounds, Revolver, Exile on Main Street — would always be eclipsed by whatever had briefly excited the kids that year into thinking that they too were living through a golden age.

I remember one year when Pulp, Oasis and Blur all had two albums each above Sgt Pepper. This did not signify the end of civilisation. It meant that young people were engaging with the world they lived in, rather than bitterly recreating matchstick models of the neo-gothic achievements of a previous iteration of god-fearing humanity.

Furthermore, I suspect many of the world’s “favourite” artists have been searched for reasons other than artistic fundamentals. In second place worldwide was Frida Kahlo, most popular in the United States and Brazil. Kahlo is a decent artist. But more importantly today she is an icon for a full stack of currently in vogue causes — feminism, socialism, anti-Americanism and, according to Wikipedia, the LGBTQ+ alliance, though which letter accords with “falling in love at 21 with a fat moustachio’d muralist twice your age” I am not clear. These are all perfectly valid reasons to be interested in an artist. But googling “Frida Kahlo” might easily be about something other than her art.

As for those who worry that great art is being lost under a tide of activism, they should note that da Vinci was still well in the lead across the globe, with more than twice as many nations searching him than second-place Kahlo. But it is noticeable that most of his triumphs were in the developing world. There might be something of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs here. Only once the basics are met — food, drink, shelter, Renaissance masterpieces — can one indulge in the luxury of searching for self – actualisation in oils.

Meanwhile, the fourth most widely searched artist worldwide — including in China — was one Artemisia Gentileschi, of whom I am going to take a deep breath and admit I had never heard.

If there were some way to arrange artists along a sort of spectrum, we might be able to identify the median artist rather than the mode, and the results might be more reassuring. But really, this is just a plea not to blame Banksy, or the kids — and dads — who like him. He never asked for this. If he has dedicated his life to anything other than decorating urban squalor and lifting neighbourhood spirits, it has been to challenging the art world’s fixation on monetising genius, their cynical determination to commodify creativity wherever they find it.

Some years ago, David Bowie observed that New York graffiti artists infuriated the art establishment because it was a movement they couldn’t leverage — so they cunningly identified a handful of artists like Basquiat and Keith Haring as “geniuses” and started arranging auctions for them at turbo-charged prices, ignoring the fact that they were best understood as part of a community rather than a auction house. So it goes.

My suspicion, even though he no longer returns my calls, is that Banksy finds this sort of thing as hilarious and absurd as any of you. The difference is that he is not afflicted by the cringe. He will just see it as further, if long redundant, proof of what a racket it all is — and perhaps what a great surface Russia is for an aspiring troublemaker with an aerosol can.


Simon Evans is a comedian and radio presenter.

TheSimonEvans

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Steve Wesley
Steve Wesley
3 years ago

Evans is right to say that we shouldn’t blame Banksy, rather we should deride the fawning adoration heaped on him by a half-witted commentariat who have elevated him to the status of seer.
Banksy is taking the piss out of both the establishment and the socially aware middle class who want to see him as a modern day Hogarth. He must be laughing fit to burst. His antics have always been entertaining and mildly subversive, but nothing more. Society isn’t about to collapse, and neither is it about to radically change as a result of a Banksy appearing on a wall near to you. In reality, he’s nothing more than that 6th form radical who seemed so daring in his approach, but is now just another part of the society. *
Far more telling is the reality that the art world cannot properly manipulate or monetise him, despite their best efforts to do so. If ever there was a world which earned derision it’s the art world, but that’s a topic for another time.
* See also, Dadaism, Andy Warhol, The Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols …..

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago
Reply to  Steve Wesley

*See also, quite a few of the commentators to Unherd articles, myself included.

John MacDonald
John MacDonald
3 years ago
Reply to  Steve Wesley

He’s funny. It’s not his fault people take him seriously.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago
Reply to  Steve Wesley

“Far more telling is the reality that the art world cannot properly manipulate or monetise him, despite their best efforts to do so. If ever there was a world which earned derision it’s the art world, but that’s a topic for another time.”

But he has ‘monetised’ himself. And like the ‘art world’ thinks that (conspicuous) monetary ‘charity’ is something other than priggish Pharisaism. But it isn’t. It presumes the righteousness of the giver.
Nobody actually likes a philanthropist.

Last edited 3 years ago by Arnold Grutt
luis p
luis p
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Wesley

You should send hem another email and ask for and original canvas, not sure if this one will sold at the low reserved.

Banksy is stilling ideas from other peoples to make money, and when owner know he send them a bag of peanuts for you to stay quiet….

Is your idea so make hem pay for it…
Banksy is a copy of everything up there, and half of his paint are done by other peoples.

Last edited 1 year ago by luis p
Miro Mitov
Miro Mitov
3 years ago

I would probably be jumped upon by Banksy’s admirers and fall right into Simon’s definition of being a snob, but I will be out with it- he is definitely not my cup of tea. Of course, that does not mean he is a bad artist or anything- just that I find the themes of his art rather too sentimental, misty-eyed and overdoing on the pathos. In a nutshell- the type of art you can put on your Facebook page and get 15k ‘likes’ and a few thousand replies of  â€˜that’s deep, man’.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Miro Mitov

When I was young I scorned Norman Rockwell for all the same reasons, but time has amended my understanding of his stuff, and I have come to see Rockwell as an actual art great, taking his amazing artistic craft, and his times, and composition, although kitsch, really mark the times like the great painters through out history. I very seriously doubt anyone will lose money by investing in a Rockwell.

I cannot Ever imagine Bansky becoming this.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I don’t see why not. There is no telling what uses the future will make of the present. In the case of Banksy, part of the charm is of course the act, the myth. Until that passes away, it will be hard to say how big a deal he will be. Consider Andy Warhol, who was held to be a joker for much of his life, and is now taken very seriously, with, I think, good reason.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago
Reply to  Miro Mitov

“Of course, that does not mean he is a bad artist or anything”

He’s not an ‘artist at all. 1) no real artist would inflict his work on a public not asked whether they actually want his work – they’re too modest in that connection (if not in their perception of themselves and their role) and 2) no real artist would think his work was ‘useful’ for any practical or political purpose. Haydn wrote his works to glorify God. He didn’t care whether Church services ran more ‘smoothly’ as a result.

Last edited 3 years ago by Arnold Grutt
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

“I want you to understand why I might think that whatever else he is, Banksy is a Good Bloke.”
I would imagine it’s because he gave you an original of his prints which is now your most valuable possession.

Stephen Murray
Stephen Murray
3 years ago

In my old fashioned world, ALL paint vandals who disfigure public property would have their fingers broken to ensure they couldn’t disfigure PUBLIC PROPERTY again.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Murray

Tut, tut you will find yourself being severely admonished by Mark Bridgeford & Co!

Personally I would prefer amputation,
although do you then deny the miscreants Disability Benefit?

Stephen Murray
Stephen Murray
3 years ago

I would have to agree, after suffering the disgusting paint splashes of would be “Banksies” all over the five years old park in our little village in Spain! It seems the council left the park half finished in disgust at the mess the “artists” made shortly after it was opened.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Murray

Depends on the building. Some can only be improved – and would both improve and go up in value with the addition of a Banksy.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

That certainly happened in New York City, almost overnight in some neighborhoods.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Murray

#MeToo

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

He’s popular because he is witty, has something to say, and is understandable to most people. Closer perhaps to cartoon than fine art, but so what. Often it’s just bringing together incongruous elements to make a point in a visual way. There’s also an element of self mockery, sometimes irony about his work.
And a lot better than the humourless political propagandising we see so much of.
if you find him too woke, is there an antiwoke Banksie? How about a row of white, posh looking oxbridge students on graduation day with “end white supremacy” painted on their mortar boards?

Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
3 years ago

Some of the people who call themselves Banksy are quite good cartoonists.

James Sutton
James Sutton
3 years ago

How satisfying that Banksy and his art is working it’s intended magic upon you and sending you clutching your pearls in disgust! Love it and love his art.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago
Reply to  James Sutton

Yes – he’s clearly p*ssing on somebody’s strawberries.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  James Sutton

Thanks for dealing with the touatts.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago
Reply to  James Sutton

I’m just really pleased to be getting some negative comments. I feared I’d become part of the Unherd herd.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Well it seems none will accept me as a member. Sooner or later I always seem to slaughter one of the sacred cows in the herd.

Wilbur Somervell
Wilbur Somervell
3 years ago

He never asked for this.

Well, he could always stop.ï»ż

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
3 years ago

Banksy – one of those marvellous British artistic institutions which we generate despite our modest size. All power to him, I hope he is rich.

christophermcbride
christophermcbride
3 years ago

There was an anime series released last year called “Arte”, which was very loosely based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, which is likely why she featured highly in some Asian countries.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago

In any case, Artemisia Gentileschi is pretty good regardless of her presence in anime, and has been a feminist icon for some time. Worth looking up.

Ian Wigg
Ian Wigg
3 years ago

I’ve always tended towards the idea that “Banksy” isn’t actually a person but rather a “commune” or looses “studio” of artists who work under a common franchise type umbrella.

Part of my reasoning is that, if he/she’s a single person and making decent sums of money out of it then HMRC at very least will have a pretty good idea of their identity.

Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
3 years ago

You know his “paintings” are actually all done by his assistants? It’s all a big joke — that makes a shed load of money.

Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

You know Anthony Gormley did not weld the Angel of the North together, neither did Christopher Wren lay the bricks at St. Paul’s nor Capability Brown mow the lawn. Charlatans all.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Goodman

Wrong. Who built the pyramids? The Pharaohs with their wealth?: the architects with their designs?: the slaves with their muscles? Wealth and/or muscle cannot possibly build anything of consequence. Everything that exists – bricks and mortar, institutions, laws, works of art, in fact the entire fabric of human society was ‘built’ by designers.

Miro Mitov
Miro Mitov
3 years ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

I believe what was meant was that the design and concept of the paintings may not be exclusively Banksy’s but of other people working with him. But since the whole brand Banksy is built around the image of an anonymous artist, there is no contradiction if there is more than one person under it.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

Architect = Chief/Top Builder, as ‘you know who’ would have it.

David Fitzsimons
David Fitzsimons
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Goodman

Gormley probably modelled for the Angel of the North (he does appear to love planting his bronze lookalikes around the country – dare I call that vanity?); Wren is known as an architect, not a bricky. Should Banksy be known as a designer rather than an artist? No wait – someone below said brand – that works.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

The same was true of Andy Warhol. And Banksy’s work is a thousand times cleverer than Warhol’s.

Except maybe the the p***s on the Apollo lander. I’ll give him that one.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

You mean the Master directs, as it has always been from at least Leonardo if not eons before.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

Is there any other artist alive today that the average ordinary working class person in the UK, the US, France, or even Japan can name, and in fact even identify the work of?

Banksy is the most popular and famous artist in the world. It’s not even close. And what’s more, he frickin EARNED it. And if any other artist doesn’t like it, do better. Please. Cause what passes for fine art these days is dire.

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Rense
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

David Hockney and his work I guess would be familiar to the boomer generation in the west.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

And the “dead shark” guy, and the “unmade bed” woman, I suppose.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

Indeed. I have time for Tracey Emin’s work. Not keen on Damien Hirst. Taste is totally personal.

Neil Papadeli
Neil Papadeli
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

I know little to nothing of modern art; however, I went to the 2017 Venice Biennale to see ‘dead shark’ guy’s exhibition ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’. Absolutely extraordinary. Monumental. Will never, ever forget it.
It contrasted with the other, immediately forgettable, utterly incomprehensible dross art presented in the Biennale.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

The whole Art Word has been a festering carbuncle on the backside of humanity for over a century.
Just recall the antics of the loathsome Bernard Berenson and his equally revolting accomplice Joseph Duveen a century ago.
Can one ever trust that species that describes itself as an ‘art expert’ again?

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Totally agree! People at least go and see Banksy.

David Fitzsimons
David Fitzsimons
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Sorry to be a contrarian but how has Banksy ‘earned it’. I like his art, but he appears to spray paint buildings at night which lots of other people do – does Banksy have a second job?

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

For a start, there are any number of reasons why people might Google “Banksy” that have no bearing on whether he was their favourite artist — ranging from “Do we know who he is yet so I can send him some hate mail?” to “Who is this ‘Banksy’ that my husband seems so annoyed by?”

not to forget the England goalkeeper in the 1966 World Cup!

google
google
3 years ago

I suppose Banksy is a technically gifted artist (something I appreciate in this day and age of bollocks art); but I don’t at all like the ‘vandalism and anonymity’ gimmick. Sorry, but that’s all it is. If he wasn’t a lefty, you wouldn’t even have heard of him.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

Well what a coincidence. Listening to Mezzanine in bed a masterpiece which I’m obsessed with when this article pops up past midnight. I wonder if the rumors are true. I’m neutral to Banksy’s street art which is fine but not my thing. But if he is the guy out of Massive Attack then I’m profoundly grateful for the music.

PS if you ever listen to Mezzanine late at night don’t listen to the genuinely disturbing Black Milk last thing before going to sleep. Did that first time I heard Mezzanine and then had nightmares about huge spiders for several days after for some reason.

Christopher Thompson
Christopher Thompson
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Ah, Massive Attack, providing a soundtrack to middle-class dinner parties since 1988.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

Absolutely nothing preventing the NUM from playing it at the Durham Miners’ Gala. And anyway, what’s the problem with middle-class dinner parties? Or Massive Attack soundtracks at them?

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

People are prejudiced, that’s all. If you’re middle-class and have dinner parties you must be bad. Or at least uncouth.

Roland Ayers
Roland Ayers
3 years ago

The Tennents gag is a whole lot more profound than any of Banksy’s visual work. At least he had the decency to acknowledge the plagiarism.