Banksy woz ere - unfortunately

Why does the 'guerrilla artist' beloved of fashionistas paint on the street? So that he can insult the man in the street.

Is your orphanage fresh out of Malawian babies? As luck would have it, there is an easier way to prove your ‘politically-aware’ superstar credentials - though it may prove slightly more expensive. What you need is an original painting by ‘guerrilla artist’ Banksy to hang on your wall.

Xtina’s got one, Jamie Oliver wants one, and someone, somewhere with money to burn has just forked out £50,000 for Banksy’s series of faux-Warhol prints of Kate Moss as Marilyn. Angelina Jolie was recently spotted at Banksy’s Los Angeles art exhibition, where (according to an onlooker) she ‘went nuts’, spending £12,000 on a painting called Picnic (which shows a white family eating lunch beneath an umbrella while 15 starving Africans look on) and £40,000 on a piece showing a man being hit by a custard pie. It can only be a matter of months before Madonna causes uproar as she tries to import Banksy’s painted elephant.

To the rest of us, the vogue for Banksy among the jet-set elite, who want to save Africa by publicity stunt, might seem a bit old hat, for Banksy has been ‘raising our awareness’ on ethical issues for years in Britain. After moving out of Bristol for the more susceptible brain-climes of trendy Hoxton in east London (the residents of Bristol being, according to Banksy, ‘thick as shit’), Banksy has let us know that we are being brainwashed by advertising (we’re victims of ‘Brandalism’); about what animals in zoos really think (‘we’re bored of fish’/ ‘Keeper smells boring boring boring’, according to his handpainted slogans at London Zoo and elsewhere); and he has been spraypainting rats, gay policemen, LA charwomen, Queen Victoria indulging in a lesbian sex act, and children releasing balloons to make an assortment of political statements which rarely make any sense.

With a flair for publicity only matched by a knack for making money, Banksy has now spraypainted LA in the same way, left an inflatable doll dressed in orange Guantanamo garb at Disneyland in Paris, sprayed a series of murals on the Palestinian West Bank barrier and in favour of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas, Mexico, and dropped subversive ‘artworks’ in prestigious galleries across the world (which, once found, are often added to the ‘proper’ collection). Everyone, it seems, is in on Banksy’s joke.

But his ‘radical’ political statements never seem to colonise the imagination of those who aren’t his celebrity clients for very long. After the initial buzz of a new ‘Banksy’ on the streets (generated, in part, by Banksy’s own website, which has full press clippings and archive), people block out his paintings in the same way they block out blanket advertisements.

The artistic merit of his work appears quite as dubious as the political statements on which it rests. Banksy’s recent ‘elephant in the room’ exhibit (featuring a live, painted elephant, in a room) was supposed to represent how none of us is discussing that other ‘elephant in the room’: AIDS. Or was it poverty? Anyway, the elephant looked like it had been painted by cack-handed sixth-formers, and had to be scrubbed clean after complaints from animal rights protestors. And actually, lots of people are discussing AIDS, sometimes more than any other disease, in fact.

Another artwork meant to represent how we are ‘sweeping AIDS under the carpet’ was a Banksy stencil in Chalk Farm, allegedly commissioned by the Independent for Bono’s guest-edited ‘Project Red issue’ earlier this year. Banksy denied that it was a commission, and pointed out that the maid had already been spraypainted on an art gallery wall in Hoxton months before. Actually, it was a portrait of a maid Banksy had met in LA, who was ‘quite a feisty lady’. But whatever the feisty lady was to represent, the statement is quite as banal as the execution (see the portrait on Flickr).

Other statements are even more mindless. Charlie Brooker, writing on Comment is Free, describes the imagined impact one of Banksy’s works is meant to have on the unsuspecting ‘nine-to fiver’. It’s a picture of ‘that Vietnamese girl who had her clothes napalmed off’: ‘A familiar image, you think… Then, with an astonished lurch, you notice sly, subversive genius Banksy has stencilled Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald either side of her. Wham! The message hits you like a lead bus: America…um ...war…er…Disney…and stuff. Wow. In an instant, your worldview changes forever. Your eyes are opened. Staggering away, mind blown, you flick v-signs at a Burger King on the way home. Nice one Banksy! You’ve shown us the truth, yeah?’ (1)

For Banksy, the masses, and especially Bristolians, are just thick. His street paintings often show rats apparently to indicate that we are all unthinking members of the ‘rat race’. It seems the main reason he paints on the street is because he wants to insult the man in the street directly. Yet now his ‘art’ is selling for thousands of dollars and pounds. It’s the picture-frame equivalent of the Project Red Amex card or the backstage pass at Live8. It doesn’t mean anything, but owning one just might - for a split second - fool other people into thinking that you do.

Read on:

spiked-issue: arts and entertainment

(1) Supposing… Subversive genius Banksy is actually rubbish, Comment Is Free, 22 September 2006

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