It seems that most of us students (in our drunken Jesters-bound haze) managed to miss Banksy’s newest work, which was sprayed onto the wall of a house in Bevois Valley. The mural, which appeared in late September last year, showed a small child stencilled in black and white, clutching a balloon, with the slightly pessimistic yet poignant statement ‘No future’ printed above in red.
Bristol-based graffiti artist Banksy is well known for his satirical and anti-establishment artwork, which has graced many a wall or warehouse across the country, but this was his first mural located in Southampton. Labour Arts spokesperson Derek Burke announced that it was ‘fabulous that Banksy had left his mark’, and that the piece would help to regenerate a ‘run-down area’.
However, Banksy’s bleak monochrome prediction was reduced to a plain white wall only 3 weeks after its discovery, rendering the estimated £35,000 piece worthless. It seems that even an artist who can count Angelina Jolie and Damien Hurst among his fans is powerless in the face of vigilante art-critics armed with white paint and rollers!
Like Batman, Banksy sweeps through the streets to do his work unsighted, endeavouring to keep his identity his own little secret. Due to the illegal nature of his work, it is unsurprising that he wants us to know little more than his infamous pseudonym.
It is difficult to write about the anonymity of a person who is so famous - it feels almost paradoxical to do so. The media has long been fascinated by him, but I struggle to believe all the supposedly factual claims which have been made about the artist. It is hard to accept, for example, that we can really know that he was born on July 28th 1973, or that his real name is Robert (or maybe Robden, or Robin Gunningham, or perhaps Robin Banks... you get the picture). Simon Hattenstone of The Guardian is said to be the only person to have interviewed him personally, but similar articles are becoming increasingly common. Lee Coan wrote an article entitled ‘Breaking the Banksy: The first interview with the world’s most elusive artist’, a good five years later. As a result of this media-frenzy, questioning who has actually interviewed him and what his real name truly is, Banksy’s anonymity is perhaps more intact than it appears at first glance.
However, I can’t help but question how someone who is so well known for what they do (and who, after all, must have a bank account like the rest of us) can remain so elusive. Top Gear’s ‘The Stig’ didn’t manage to keep up the charade for long, but then again, the cost of him unveiling his identity was not heavy fines and possible imprisonment. However, it is hard to believe that legal threats are the only things which keep Banksy so private; the fact that his paintings are dotted all over the world, without a face to match to them, adds something to his art; it creates a dimension of excitement and mystery, which is perhaps as much a part of the art as the spray paint and stencils.
Maybe the public, the media and the institutionalised art-world alike are so fascinated by Banksy because of the nature of his artwork, and how he executes it. His paintings reveal a rather anarchistic mind-set, and the fact that he illegally paints these ideals across the walls of the state is probably in itself the best expression of this mind-set possible. Banksy’s anonymity plays an important part in pulling this off; he is the ultimate proof of the oppressive state, an artist forced into anonymity because of his ideals. Perhaps the fact that he is still using the world as his blank canvas - as opposed to a prison cell wall – is all we need to know to answer the question of whether Banksy remains ‘anonymous’, despite the fact that his artwork is so famous.
VANDALISM OR ART?
If Banksy can make his mark on a public wall, why can’t anyone else? Does his status in the art world justify double standards? Or is it the ‘art’ itself which determines where it can be displayed? Is Banksy simply a glorified vandal?
In light of the infamous white washing of his work in Southampton, Banksy’s ever-public way of displaying his art has raised the question of where the boundaries between art and vandalism lie - or whether the two can be distinguished from each other at all. With such a wide appreciation for his work, the manner in which it is shared with an audience is often bypassed and forgiven. However, taken in a different context, such as the normal graffiti we are more used to seeing around our streets, the reception of such public displays of ‘art’ is often a very different story.
If we ask the question ‘What is art?’, we are presented with an abundance of definitions: Art is an exhibition, an expression, the product of human creativity... and so the list goes on. It is easy to get lost in all the definitions, and so, unsurprisingly, the borders existing within and around the matter have become rather hazy. After all, graffiti encompasses every item in the list above, so surely it must be considered to be art?
From the declaration that ‘Geography sucks’ scrawled on the toilet cubicle you saw in Year Seven, to the cries for peace emblazoned onto the wall separating Israel and Palestine, in its most raw form, graffiti is a means of expression in the same way art is. Arguably then, artistic and creative intentions are there. So does our prejudice against graffiti come down to the aesthetic - do we just simply not ‘like’ what we see?
And so we come to the V-word. If graffiti ‘vandalism’ costs train companies around £300,000 a year, can it ever truly be appreciated in our society? Looking to our own city of Southampton, the council refer to graffiti as an ‘Enviro-crime’, and has fixed penalties against anyone committing this crime.
Maybe graffiti is supposed to be unattractive and invasive - the fact that it is illegal and socially rebellious being the hub of its creativity. This idea of rebellion does seem to run throughout Banksy’s work; he has hung several of his efforts illegally in various museums, once casually walking into the Louvre and hanging up his own version of the Mona Lisa, because he felt it ‘looked better’. Nonetheless he always has a serious message, and his work is generally deemed to be ‘good’.
As far as graffiti is concerned, Banksy himself claims that the people actually defacing our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses, and that as we get no choice in whether we see these, they are as much ours as the person who put them there, and so we can ‘re-arrange’ them however we like. Ironically, the person who whitewashed his piece in Southampton clearly felt the same about Banksy’s work; the opinionated graffiti artist’s beliefs almost seem to condone such an act.
Ultimately, we can all reach our own conclusions, but personally I’d like to think that graffiti can be considered an art - one that is accessible to everyone and gives character to a city. It’s the same case as with any other artwork; some of it can be appreciated as technically admirable work, and some of it is just undeniably hard to appreciate at all.