I went to see the exhibition Banksy against Bristol Museum at the weekend and left in a thoughtful mood. Banksy’s claim to fame is as a graffiti artist: he is, by definition, street. However the exhibition showed a real Art School sensibility. For a start, the boy has clearly been taught not just how to draw, but how to design installations, how to sculpt, and how to design and maybe create fabrications. He’s a competent maker of artistic objects. So I would bet foldies that he started his career as a grafitti artist while at Art School in Bristol and that it was the graffiti which brought success. Justifiably so. It’s superb.
Several things were interesting. The Art School / Art Gallery style stuff is trite and unoriginal.
None of it said anything that hadn’t already been said by Duchamps, Magritte or Dali. Downstairs there was a painting by Banksy of MPs in the House of Commons as chimps and orang-utangs, and upstairs in the permanent collection is an early 19thC cartoon of the Prime Minister as a donkey. Hardly original stuff, is it? Don’t get me wrong, it’s all superbly executed and a lot of it is witty or fun. But multi-faceted and nuanced it is not. It is one dimensional and ultimately rather unsatisfactory. As Kipling said: ‘it’s clever, but is it art?’. The one exception was the image of a Muslim woman, in hijab and naqib, frying an egg and wearing one of those pinnies with a curvy body in a bikini. I have been mulling that one over for a while. But that aside, I wasn’t blown away by his gallery work.
I was and remain impressed by his graffiti.
It’s dangerous, edgy and – quite literally – apposite. So why do I think his graffiti is all of these good things and that his gallery pieces are derivative, politically naive and (whisper who dares) rather dull? I can think of only two explanations.
Firstly, that it’s a matter of framing. Margaret Mead said ‘dirt is merely matter out of place’. So a political point made in a gallery is emasculated in some way but the same political point made on the street is ballsy and subversive. And there may be some truth to that: Banksy is praised for making his political points in a gallery, but risks being tried and fined for doing it on walls
And the second is the good old Nietzscherism: that which does not kill you makes you strong. Artists are strengthened by competent critique. Banksy served his critical apprenticeship on the streets of Bristol, London and Jerusalem; or on their walls anyway. He learned what worked and what didn’t, what was admired and what would be ignored, what would be reproduced and what would be walked past. But he arrived in the galleries of LA, New York and now Bristol as an acclaimed artist, so his gallery work did not have to survive criticism to be shown.
So what relevance does this have for a BA? Well, that context matters: what works in one situation will not therefore work in another. And secondly that ideas improve with challenge.
Anyway – watch the videos and read the review linked at the top. His stuff’s good: it’s just that the street stuff is better.
One final thought: maybe the truly subversive thing about Banksy, his ultimate installation in these days of cheap celebrity, is that he prefers us to recognise his work rather than his face.