Monday, 6 January 2014

Public art 6: Wall paintings

This wall painting conceals a Banksy image
which was in the bottom right hand corner

I received several very interesting books for Christmas. One of these is Banksy Wall and Piece and it covers examples of his work up until 2006. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading it since I've never been a particular fan of his. I must admit that he has raised the bar where graffiti is concerned — I've only ever thought of it as form of vandalism with no artistic merit.

He is variously described as a political activist, graffiti artist and film maker. Here's a quote from this book: "Despite what they say graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Although you might have to creep about at night and lie to your mum it's actually one of the more honest art forms available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on the best walls a town has to offer and nobody is put off by the price of admission."

I would counter that by saying that we, the travelling public, don't have a choice about whether we want to see the graffiti we are exposed to on walls, bus shelters and pavements as we go about our daily lives whereas we do have a choice about which art galleries we might visit and many of them are free. I would also say to him, if I found myself chatting to him over a cup of tea in a café, that with the exception of a small number of graffiti artists who are making art that challenges our assumptions most graffiti is the lowest form of art and a colossal waste of spray paint.

Being a lily-livered liberal I enjoyed his anti-war stance with, for example, the Mona Lisa holding a rocket launcher in Soho 2001; making fun of the police with two gay policemen in an embrace and his habit of designating blank walls as official graffiti areas in Marylebone Road and Portobello Road, London and in random areas of San Francisco. This man makes his point with a sense of humour and I find that refreshing.

An important part of Banksy's reputation is his anonymity and, given that his art appears to pop up overnight, he also has the slightly glamorous allure of a highwayman who works to his own timetable. The work in this book has clearly been carefully photographed and well documented over the years. Since his work is by its very nature ephemeral and apt to be painted over, amended by other graffiti artists or simply removed these visual records must be made promptly. So I wonder, does Banksy lie in wait on his own with a high quality camera to record what happens next or does he have a team of willing workers following on behind him? Is this man whose reputation rests on being a one-man-band actually heading up some corporate entity? Is this the real, big joke he is playing on everyone?

I ask this because there is a section in the book which documents his work that has been sneaked into museums like the Natural History Museum, London; the British Museum; the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Natural History Museum in New York and the captions list how long the pieces were on display until they were spotted by curators. Then some of these items have found their legitimate way into the permanent collections. I find it implausible that this can happen without the tacit approval of the museums and art galleries concerned. And does it bother Banksy that far from being a fly-by-night graffiti artist he has now joined the establishment as a middle class installation artist?


Anonymous said...

As usual an insightful comment. Personally, I think he has sold out to the big boys as now, as it is advertised he will be certain cities on certain dates. I suspect the upper echelons of the art world are all too aware of who he actually is and whether he is a team or a person. Also the work is now being protected and in cases ripped off the walls to be sold, so it has gone beyond graffiti now.
I love murals on a wall, especially if it commemorates a community but most graffiti is just names tags and crude sexual doodles done by juveniles who think its funny.
Have you see the movie- exit through the gift shop? We watched it by accident and were very entertained by it. As to the book, I got it as a gift a few years back and I did like the images. Don't think I got around to reading the text as the film told me as much as I wanted to know.

Heather James said...

I didn't realise he advertises his appearances in different cities. I think that is really funny. We have a mural in Hackney that is called the Peace Mural which commemorates a community and, like you, I'm all in favour of that but crude sexual doodles, I don't think so. I would like to see the film, I'd never heard of it before.