March 25, 2021

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 café 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.