Why on Earth is Banksy Britain’s favourite artist?

A new poll is surely having a laugh.

Wendy Earle

Topics Culture UK

Street artist Banksy has been announced as Britain’s favourite artist of all time. This is according to a YouGov poll, commissioned by Homes & Antiques magazine, which was then picked up by the national press.

There is a risk here of taking the poll too seriously. After all, how representative of Britain can the 2,000 respondents be? Are they really the cultural voice of an entire nation? And how reliable is Homes & Antiques as a cultural authority? It’s certainly not doing itself any favours when it spells Van Gogh, who came third on the list, ‘Van Gough’.

But then the poll was never really meant to be a serious exploration of national taste. It was, I would wager, commissioned for PR purposes. It was a chance to generate headlines – which it did – both by elevating Banksy above the likes of Monet and Michaelangelo, and simultaneously attaching Home & Antiques’s less than on-the-pulse brand to probably the most high-profile, zeitgeisty artist in the UK right now.

Because there is no doubting Banksy’s contemporary prominence. He may be famed as much for his anonymity as for his witty artworks, which pop up in various places around the world, but he does persistently prod and probe our cultural and political moment, offering comment on all manner of contemporary issues. Few others even approach his level of relevancy.

So, in a sense, it is possible that Banksy genuinely is the country’s favourite artist right now. And it is also possible to explain why that might be the case, in terms of three main contributory factors: the decline of art history teaching; the politicisation of debates about art and culture; and the vagaries of the art market.

On the first, art schools no longer see the study of art history as important to a young artist’s development. And only a tiny minority of students now study art history at school and university. This means that the awareness of an art canon is limited, even among art students and graduates. And this in turn diminishes the capacity for judgement and, therefore, for the evaluation of the relative merits of artists.

Secondly, art galleries re-evaluating their historic collections, and curating their contemporary ones, are driven more by contemporary political considerations than by aesthetic and art-historical ones. The extent to which an artist adheres to a certain PC worldview, which Banksy certainly does, is often more important than the art itself.

And third, most collectors focus on the money-making capacity of art. And, given the newest area for making money in the arts is street art, one can see why they might be drawn to Banksy. Collectors’ interest, in turn, drives further interest in his work.

So, you can see why Banksy might be popular. He ticks a lot of boxes: he’s accessible, anti-consumerist, politically correct and sellable. That he’s now our favourite artist is eminently believable. But what’s troubling about this verdict is that it has little to do with the quality of his art, which, while often witty and well-executed, is generally shallow and opportunistic. Homes & Antiques might have done well from its headline-grabbing poll, but I’m not sure art has.

Wendy Earle is convenor of the Academy of Ideas Arts and Society Forum.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture UK


cliff resnick

27th July 2019 at 11:26 am

Banksy is what it is, pretty good for a street graffiti paint sprayer. He handles monochrome very well but this is the most basic of painting skills and he probably uses pre cut-out masks to make it easier, the subjects are well we know that, right-on right-on! If Banksy is one of our favorite “artist” then I would advise Matt (perhaps the most British of cartoonist) to invest in some spray paint tins and better still employ some youths to go out and do his spraying for him.

Michaela Clark

25th July 2019 at 4:01 pm

The world is so blinded to see who Banksy really is just for the sheer fact we’re so up ourselves and can’t see it’s a silent black movement to change the world and see how we look at people and that it’s not all just about colour and judging a person because of the way they look. #makechange

Henri Zazoo

26th July 2019 at 3:34 am

Your sentence is incomprehensible. Try a little punctuation and maybe we can give it another shot.

cliff resnick

27th July 2019 at 11:45 am

Banksy is bit like the “Black Fingernail” in Carry-on film “Don’t lose Your Head”! A bit of a laugh!

Michaela Clark

25th July 2019 at 3:38 pm

It’s art yes, but a lesson too.

Michaela Clark

25th July 2019 at 3:36 pm

Banksy’s main fear is how the people with power react to what he’s done and he’s doing no harm bar trying to change people’s perspectives same go with public figures and celebrities. This is why we couldn’t talk about it for years until someone realised.

Michaela Clark

25th July 2019 at 3:34 pm

It shows how the UK is stuck in tradition. We push all the blame onto other countries for our own mess it’s not Art it’s a silent movement called “The Black Movement”. We give so much authority to people who don’t have a clue to use it and use it for mostly bad and not to create the good we’re so blinded just to discover who a damn artist is because we’re all so damn small minded. Well, some of us.

Henri Zazoo

26th July 2019 at 3:38 am

Same here. You are almost incomprehensible. It’s painful to read what you are trying to say. I’m guessing you are pounding this out on your phone while sitting on the bus, or walking down the street, or something.

Michaela Clark

25th July 2019 at 3:21 pm

I know exactly who he is, messaged him 2 days ago and asked the man himself I thought it was. Not going to give his name away though for the sheer fact people need to learn to look with their ears not just with their eyes 👀

Warren Alexander

24th July 2019 at 7:02 pm

The group of people who call themselves “Banksy” are quite good cartoonists.

Frank Sutton

24th July 2019 at 5:53 pm

Why? For the same reason that Lennon’s vacuous Imagine is the best song ever.

Alex Cameron

24th July 2019 at 4:55 pm

Great piece, Wendy Earl.
Banksy is a modern case of ‘the emperor has no clothes’. It is merely graffiti. His work it has little in common with art, either historically or even contemporaneously. He is mainstream and successful because his ‘art’ is ‘middle-of-the-road’. It should be referred to as graffiti because, like all graffiti, it has not even the slightest potential to transform, elevate or enrich. Banksy’s success is based on momentary sniggers from Shoreditch and Hackney hipsters that have set-up home in ‘the hood’. That along with the dollars of philistines in Hollywood.

Northern 1312

24th July 2019 at 4:48 pm

Yawn. Banksy is Britain’s favourite artist precisely because he doesn’t challenge the majority of the public’s preconceptions. The medium he ostensibly works in primarily lends itself very well to allowing the viewer to think he’s making a rebellious, hard hitting social critique when in reality he’s mainly just affirming their points of view with all the bravery of a lazy sixth former. His recent work shows this continuation, using the issues of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and Brexit to raise his own artistic profile, without actually challenging anyone or anything on either issue. Its barely even ‘art’ these days so much as it is corporate sponsored advertising.

Putting aside subjective arguments on the quality of Banksy’s work is to say nothing of the hundreds of people we unnecessarily lock away every year for broadly similar non violent activities. The realist in me is aware that Banksy would never have been allowed to become the ‘cultural icon’ he is without it being sanctified by ‘the state’, which has been an ongoing project since the mid 2000s at least. Ordinary people get sent to prison for writing graffiti, Banksy gets his work protected with perspex glass and a broad sheet column congratulating him.

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