A YouGov poll on behalf of Homes & Antiques magazine has revealed that Banksy is Britain’s favourite artist. To be clear, I do not mean that he is Britain’s favourite living artist. I do not mean that he is Britain’s favourite British artist. No, he is Britain’s favourite artist of all time. Jog on, J.M.W. Turner. Goodbye, Vincent Van Gogh. Catch you later, Caravaggio. It’s Banksy for us.
Now, I have no wish to sound too much like a snob. I am not an art expert. As a matter of fact, I am barely an art beginner. Ask me to explain the difference between Monet and Manet and I’m liable to explain the difference between the letters “o” and “a”. Take me to the National Gallery and after an hour I’m likely to be grunting, fidgeting and recommending that we head out for a cool beer.
Still, it is grim to think that Bansky is the most popular artist among modern Britons. When I read the news I checked to see if the poll had been conducted among four people in a fashionable Soho bar but an impressive two thousand people has been polled. Banksy? Banksy.
Forgive me for quoting the editor of Homes & Antiques at length but I want you to appreciate her words in their full glory. “It is both surprising and exciting to see Banksy at the top of this poll,” she says:
His appearance in the top spot is reflective of the current popularity of street art, which is a burgeoning collecting area. This enigmatic character has done so much to make art accessible – he takes it out of the gallery walls and onto the streets, literally. And with his dark sense of humour and secretive approach, he truly has captured the hearts, minds and gaze of the nation.
If Banksy has made art “accessible” he has done so not just by putting his stencils of the side of buildings but by pandering. At best, his work is cute, filled with mildly counter-intuitive contrasts, like an anarchist throwing a bouquet of flowers, police officers kissing and Queen Elizabeth in David Bowie’s make-up. None of this is profound. It is cute.
Banksy has flaunted his rebellious credentials by, for example, setting up a picture frame that would shred a copy of his famous piece “Girl with Balloon” after it had sold at auction for $1.4 million. Why paying so much for the remains of the picture rather than the picture itself was much more absurd is vulnerable to questioning and, indeed, the art world proved that trying to satirize its appetite for junk is a futile endeavour, as the strips of paper increased in value.
Of course, the stereotypical fogeyish take would be that this is the nadir of modern art, of tendencies, that is, that gave us such grim, charmless cultural flotsam as Damien Hirst’s skull, Tracey Emin’s bed and the absurd creations of Jeff Koons. Naturally, I do think that is grim, charmless cultural flotsam. But Banksy’s work is very different.
Hirst, Emin and Koons have never had mass popularity. Joyless critics might test the limits of their vocabulary to rationalise their status as notable artists but the average man and woman has little time for their work, which is evident from their absence from the poll that Banksy won. While those artists have been symptomatic of the alienation of cultural elites from both popular taste and artistic tradition, Banksy represents the flattening of culture that has been enabled by the Internet.
While his fame precedes the rise of Facebook and Instagram, Banksy is an artist for the age of social media. If you scroll down the timeline of your preferred platform you will see a bewildering array of images: jokes, selfies, cat pictures, inspirational memes, “food porn”, political cartoons, real porn et cetera. You can click “like” and move on in the space of mere seconds.
Banksy’s stencils are perfectly suited for this inattentive time. None of them demand more than a moment’s thought. “Sorry,” reads one slogan, “The lifestyle you ordered is currently out of stock.” Oh, I get it. Click. Liked. “I don’t believe in global warming,” reads another, painted underneath a bridge so that the water covers the bottoms of the words. Oh, clever. Click. Liked. Someone might suggest that I am expressing my political prejudices here. Well, perhaps a little. But I do worry about the encroachment of consumerism on human meaning and identity, and I do believe in global warming. The problem is that his points are made in such a thunderously unsubtle style that one can only nod, or smirk, or grunt, or click like and move on. They will never haunt the consciousness like, say, The Third of May 1808 or Massacre in Korea, having none of their visual power or thematic depth. At most, they entertain it briefly, like Hallmark cards that grew up and went to art school.
To be fair, it is not as if Banksy has ever claimed to be a great artist. I think that the elusive cultural giant sees himself as more of an entertainer. It is hard to believe that his full-sized theme park parody, Dismaland, was created with as much earnestness as it was mischief. Pricing tickets at £3, and thus ensuring that the project was bound to lose him money, represented a genuine commitment to accessibility.
Accessibility, though, is not the same as quality. Banksy’s work critiques the shallow cynicism of our world but also reflects it. “Mobile Lovers”, for example, depicts a man and a woman embracing while looking at their phones behind each other’s backs. (We are obsessed with phones. Do you get it?) Banksy allowed the Bristol youth club owner on whose door he had painted the piece to sell it and, thus, save his club, again you have to admire his principles. Still, the work seems rather hollow when the man and woman could well be “liking” Banksy pieces on meme pages.
Conservatives are not known for their fondness for the Frankfurt School but it reminds me of Theodore Adorno’s theory of “pseudo-individualisation”. Standardised opinions are broadcast through standardised tropes, in easily digestible chunks of art, yet the viewer feels subversive for appreciating them.
We have been replacing a lack of cultural quality with cultural quantity. Instead than having rare moments of beauty, power and insight, we (or, at least, many of us) face a ceaseless barrage of the cute, the curious and the clichéd. Rather than seeking out artworks which flicker in our minds long after we have stopped looking at them, we browse past endless images that light our brains up like catherine wheels. Images are almost too accessible. We can see everything, and nothing matters. Like. Like. Like.