Today was a boring sort of day, when I did -I DON’T LIKE BANKSY THERE I SAID IT! Yeah, I know, as a middle-class guy with vague pretensions towards being bohemian in some half-arsed way I’m supposed to like Banksy’s work, but I just don’t.
It’s not that I think his stuff is bad per se, I just don’t think it’s all that good. I mean, some of it’s kinda funny, in that if you saw it on a greetings card half an hour before you were due to arrive at a friend’s birthday party you might consider buying it. But I don’t think he’s half so clever or witty as the critics make him out to be.
The thing is, he’s safely subversive. He’ll make some sort of point, but he won’t take you out of your comfort zone. He won’t implicate you, dear patron of the arts. He’ll keep things nice and subtle, often to the point where it’s not clear what his message actually is. Take the above piece, wot I encountered in Islington the other day. It’s called Saluting the Flag. It’s about capitalism, right? Kids… worship Tesco’s? Something like that? Tesco’s is a country in its own right, but is only regarded as such by children? No, you’ve lost me.
Nor is his work particularly original. Take this one here. DO YOU SEE WHAT HE’S DONE THERE? He has combined Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald with a famous photograph from the Vietnam War to make a comment on American foreign policy and commercialism or something along those lines. Except both Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald have been subverted in the exact same way about nine million times already. Seriously, subverting those two is actually no longer considered subversive. How old is the idea of subverting these characters? Well, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Ralph Steadman included a shot of Mickey Mouse wearing a swastika. That book was published a year before that famous photo of Phan Thị Kim Phúc was actually taken.
“Ah!” you could say. “But that’s not the point! Banksy is forcing us to reevaluate the famous photo, which has become over-familiar and lost its original shock value by taking the central figure and placing her in a new context!” Well, perhaps, but even that’s been done before. Take Marcus Harvey’s Myra, pictured right. The famous photograph of Myra Hindley is recreated using children’s handprints. This painting caused so much outrage that it had to be removed from display on the very day it was put on public display after being attacked twice by members of the public. The only people who ever attack Banksy’s work are council jobsworths, because nobody else feels even remotely challenged by the stuff he does.
This one here is one of his non-graffiti pieces, Elephant in the Room. What he’s done here, you see, is taken the expression “elephant in the room” and portrayed it literally. This represents the things that are very obvious but which we choose to ignore. Do you see how clever that is? He has portrayed a metaphor literally! Along those lines, here is an artwork of my own, which I call Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth.
The second cook along represents AIDS. The ladle represents Tony Blair. The fact that the fourth cook’s torso doesn’t go all the way down is a subtle comment on our society.
Ultimately, the reason I don’t like Banksy is that he’s Anarchist-U-Like. He won’t upset people or freak them out too much. He’ll give them a bit of a giggle. But he won’t put any kind of pressure on them, he won’t force them to reevaluate themselves. How many of the people who chuckled at The Elephant in the Room are going to leave the gallery and say, “Well, actually, I do exploit developing countries quite a lot”? I mean, and then do something about it. By being so on-the-face-of-it subversive, but so when-you-get-down-to-it safe, he enables people to pretend like they give a shit about real issues without actually doing a goddamn thing. Meanwhile, he himself edges closer and closer to becoming one of the brands he so often attacks. Here’s a tip for you, Banksy – if your graffiti actually adds thousands of pounds to the value of the place you target, you’re no longer dangerous. See John Lydon in those Country Life adverts? That’s you, that is.