The following article first featured in December 2005’s issue 27 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.
This article discussed the street art of Banksy, who was the news recently in October 2018 after his ‘Girl with a Balloon’ was deliberately damaged during it’s auction by the artist. Using a remote device to control an integral shredder hidden within it’s frame, the picture inside was partially shredded, straight after being sold for £860,000 at Southerby’s.
Existencilism – A question of wanton vandalism or anti-establishment art attack?
The guerrilla artist Banksy (no relation) was until recently most famous in art circles for depicting the Queen as a chimpanzee during her Golden Jubilee, and for creating the sleeve for Blur’s Think Tank album. Within the street-cred obsessed culture of urban Britain though, he is seen as the doyen of the stencil-graffiti Street Artist – where his fine art is more about creating humorously challenging agit-prop, whilst avoiding detection and ultimate arrest (Marxist ramblings of an artistic Citizen Smith meets the stealth of the Artful Dodger). As well as his prolific output of ephemeral art-crimes, including nine recent works that glimpsed the “other side” from the Palestinian perspective, onto Israel’s controversial West Bank barrier; his work has also recently moved into more physical intervention, through a surreptitiouslyplaced bronze satire of the Statue of Justice, as prostitute wearing FMB’s and suspender belt – sited illegally at the scene of a previous arrest, overlooking the Old Bailey.
The Oxford English dictionary defines a guerrilla as: ‘a member of a small independently acting group taking part in irregular fighting, especially against large regular forces’. The regular target for Bansy’s Underground Art, is as much the establishment of the art world itself as it is the conventional forces of law and order – as graphically illustrated when his recent art intervention on the steps of the Tate warned Turner Prize visitors to “Mind the Crap”. Other smuggled-in installations, have included a supposedly authentic cave painting of a man pushing a supermarket trolley, placed within the British Museum which went unnoticed for three days; as well as other bogus art works imported into Tate Britain and the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. From October his exhibition entitled Crude Oils was shown at the Martyn Gayle gallery – a series of seminal paintings Banksy described as an “exhibition of remixed masterpieces, vandalised oil paintings and vermin”; including ironically (given recent press coverage on plagerism) a reworking of Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler.
In 2004, Keep Britain Tidy criticised Manchester’s Urbis museum as it hosted the largest UK exhibition of graffiti art ever held (ten of the world’s best-known street artists were featured in Ill Communication II), saying it legitimised street crime and blighted our most needy areas. This summer, Keep Britain Tidy also published MP signatories of their ‘Zero Tolerance of Graffiti Campaign’, which included Tony Blair who was quoted saying, “Graffiti is not art. It’s crime”. Indeed, new measures in the ‘Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003’ have now come into force to tackle the perpetrators of all graffiti and clean up the environment. Under these revised laws, local authorities can now impose penalty notices for graffiti and fly-posting; and the measures will equip them with the tools they feel they need to deal with anti-social behaviour. Home Office Minister Hazel Blears believes graffiti is an eye-sore which blights communities: “It affects people’s quality of life, increases fear of crime and reduces pride in a community. It also costs us all millions of pounds a year to clean-up – money which could be better spent on other valuable services.” To practice what it preaches, the Home Office has even launched a ‘Name that Tag’ campaign in London, Liverpool and Manchester, offering a reward of £500 for information about prolific offenders; whilst under-16s are even banned now from buying aerosol paint cans altogether.
Unsurprisingly, Banksy’s stoic response is to maintain that any crime against property is not real crime. He states on his website that “People look at an oil painting and admire the use of brushstrokes to convey meaning. People look at a graffiti painting and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access”. His iconoclastic crusade looks to break down divisions between artist and public and to encourage a subversive culture that calls for social change as a part of everyday life. This has a vaguely similar ring to it as the old Situationist International movement, the revolutionary alliance of artists that produced its own stencilled art (or Pochoir) explosion in France prior to the 1968 student uprising. The only difference here is the inherent humour with which many Banksy statements are made, and that (arguably) in New Labour as oppressor; he lacks a truly autocratic tyrant. Perhaps though, with our ever-increasing worship of consumerism, Mammon is the real dictator today, and we his avaricious conspirators. Banksy has even turned down repeated Nike requests to commission stencilled adverts, preferring instead to work for the likes of Greenpeace. As Che Guevara-wannabe Wolfie Smith, cried out in his 1980 swansong, so it is that Banksy now seems to want to empower society through his own Popular Front – thereby giving back in the process, more ‘Power to the People’.