Immediately after Christmas 2012, I went to an exhibition at the Musée de la Poste in Paris called Au-delà du Street Art (Beyond Street Art). It wouldn’t have taken a sociologist to notice the differences between those who attended it and those who attended other art exhibitions in Paris during the same period, such as Canaletto et Guardi at the Musée Jacquemart-André. Those at Au-delà were much younger, dressed mainly in the international uniform of ghetto youth, and not, from the look of them, normally frequenters of museums and art exhibitions. Among them also were many blacks, again not prominent among the attendees of other art exhibitions in Paris.

Considering the contents of Au-delà du Street Art, the Musée de la Poste was an appropriate venue. It is in the boulevard de Vaugirard, a block away from the perfectly horrible Tour Montparnasse—the skyscraper that has long ruined the view from the rue de Rennes and is now part of a considerable complex of inhuman French modernist architecture. So-called street art flourishes, statistically speaking, where the surfaces and spaces are brutal and where the eye can find no rest from the ugly. Perhaps unintentionally or unconsciously, many street artists, including the great majority who remain forever anonymous, are in effect passing aesthetic judgment on their surroundings.

The street artists in the exhibition, however, were not unknowns but rather celebrities in their field. Their works in various formats now appear in commercial galleries and sell for large, sometimes astronomical, sums of money, a sad commentary on the art market as a reflection of elite taste. A fish, say the Russians, rots from the head down; a culture, when its elite shows no discrimination, is debased.

Strangely enough, the most famous of the street artists represented, Banksy, is only too aware of this phenomenon; he has commented on it and taken advantage of it more than once. For example, he has painted a museum attendant in an old-fashioned uniform sitting near a single framed “picture” consisting only of the word PRICK (or, in another version, ARSE). The first of these versions was sold—though admittedly not by Banksy himself—for about $300,000. He has also produced a print of an auctioneer taking bids for a “picture” that consists of the words I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU MORONS ACTUALLY BUY THIS SHIT. Banksy sold about 1,000 of these prints for $180,000 in total, but they were soon selling at auction for $5,000 apiece. This reminds me of the curious fact that a placebo pill has a placebo effect even if you tell the person taking it that it is only a placebo.

Banksy has guarded his incognito so that it has become, paradoxically, an important part of his identity as well as of his commercial appeal. But according to those who have investigated his life, he seems to have been born in Bristol in 1974. He was privately educated, which suggests family prosperity. From an early age, however, he appears to have suffered not from nostalgie de la boue, for he had never hitherto known la boue, but from envie de la boue, a longing for the depths. This common desire results from two ideological assumptions: that somehow the poor are authentic in a way that other social strata are not; and that prosperity, at least in our society, is something to be ashamed of, the product of social injustice or exploitation. The vulgar language in which Banksy expresses himself, which is probably not native to his original social stratum, is thus a form of expiation for the original sin of having been born to the prosperous and inauthentic.

Banksy is nevertheless an interesting figure. He has some graphic ability, and it is not his fault if his productions have been taken seriously as art. (A glance at a van Eyck and then at a Banksy should be sufficient to put his work into perspective.) He is highly intelligent and undoubtedly witty. Some of his productions make you smile, and others make you laugh; his implicit criticisms of society can be trenchant, especially if you know the British context. He can sometimes suggest quite a lot with economical means.

For example, one of his works, painted on the bottom of an outside wall of the Ritz in London, shows little rats, dressed as waiters in tails, on either side of a red carpet leading into a rat hole. One of them holds a menu, and both are waiting obsequiously to welcome a customer. Of course, the message is not a pleasant one: that people who enter the Ritz, a very expensive establishment, are metaphorical rats. Moreover, they are foolish metaphorical rats, for they ignore the existence of a foundation of filth beneath the hotel’s luxurious veneer. This is Banksy’s version of George Orwell’s remark that our civilization is founded on coal; no doubt Banksy thinks that it justifies his existential choice of la boue. One doesn’t have to agree with the belief, deeply antipathetic as it is to the refinements of civilization, to be amused by the wit with which Banksy expresses it.

Her Majesty as Ziggy Stardust, stenciled on a wall in Bristol
SPLASH NEWS/CORBISHer Majesty as Ziggy Stardust, stenciled on a wall in Bristol

Better still is Banksy’s satirical picture, this one on a wall in London’s Essex Road, of two small children pledging allegiance, with hand on heart, to a Tesco plastic bag on a flagpole—actually an electric cable—being run up like a flag by a third child. Tesco is Britain’s largest supermarket chain, and its plastic bags, white with blue stripes and red lettering, litter the countryside, often flapping from trees or disfiguring hedgerows.

Of course, Banksy, as a spoiled child of a consumer society in which real shortage is unthinkable, has all the unexamined anticapitalist prejudices of the lumpenintelligentsia to whom he appeals. But it would be wrong to dismiss the satire of this image out of hand. Tesco, after all, issues a “loyalty card” called a Clubcard; every customer is asked at the checkout, now sometimes by machine, whether he has such a card. The card’s name implies that shopping repeatedly in the stores of one giant corporation rather than in those of another, in the hope of a small price rebate, constitutes membership in a club. You don’t have to be anticapitalist to think that such an idea debases the concept of human clubbability. (In the same way, the word “solidarity” is degraded in France by its association with the payment of high taxes extracted from citizens by force of law.) It is no new thought—but not therefore a false one—that at the heart of consumer society is often a spiritual vacuum, at least for many people. They fill the vacuum with meaningless gestures, such as loyalty to brands almost indistinguishable from one another. I have known murder committed over brands of footwear. Banksy’s image captures, both succinctly and wittily, the vacuum and what fills it.

You also don’t have to be anticapitalist to acknowledge that the power of corporations like Tesco is not altogether benign. The small and beautiful town in which I live when I am in England illustrates this. When my next-door neighbor decided to restore and redecorate his house, which dated from 1709, the local council’s conservation department demanded that the new lead flashing on his roof, invisible from the street, be stamped with a design of bees, presumably because it had been so stamped at some time in history. Certainly conservation is important and cannot be left entirely to individuals. But why was my neighbor bullied in this fashion when Tesco was permitted to open a store not 100 yards away with a frontage completely out of keeping with the town—an eyesore that affects the town’s aesthetic fabric infinitely more than the absence of bees on my neighbor’s invisible lead does? The great majority of British towns have been ruined aesthetically in a similar way, their main streets becoming dispiritingly uniform and ugly, no doubt through some combination of corporate power, bribery, and administrative incompetence. Bullying people like my neighbor is perhaps the officials’ overcompensation for their cowardice or dishonesty in the face of corporations. Banksy’s image therefore has some satirical depth to it.

Banksy’s attitude toward authority and property rights is the standard hostility of the lumpenintelligentsia. Here he is particularly hypocritical because, while maintaining that pose of hostility, he employs lawyers, owns private companies, and is reputed to be highly authoritarian in his dealings with his associates. Inside every rebel, goes the saying, there’s a dictator trying to get out.

His hostile portrayal of the police, however, is not without point in the British context. In one famous image, a long, thin trail of white paint on the sidewalk leads to a wall, where we see a policeman on his knees, snorting cocaine. The message is that the police are corrupt, or at least wrongdoers indistinguishable from those whom they are pursuing. Alas, there is little doubt that the British police are degenerating in the direction of corruption. In more than a third of all British police forces, at least one of the two most senior officers is currently under investigation for corruption or other malfeasance. And when Banksy portrays the British police as semi-militarized, he is not entirely unjustified. Often, our police do indeed look like an occupying militia, rather than what they were traditionally, and what their founder, Sir Robert Peel, intended them to be: citizens in uniform. What Banksy omits to convey is that the police are simultaneously menacing and ineffectual, an unfortunate combination of qualities, and that the innocent and law-abiding therefore fear them more than the criminals do. Nor is there any awareness on Banksy’s part that the very hostility to authority and indifference to property rights that he lauds, which is now so widespread in Britain, might have played some part in the brutalization of British life.

Banksy rightly mocks the British obsession with security cameras, a third of the global total of which are deployed in Britain, making its population the most highly surveyed in the world, in theory. In practice, the cameras contribute nothing to security, since they are inefficiently manned and maintained, and those inclined to behave badly soon learn that they have nothing to fear and thus derive a heightened sense of impunity from them. Banksy’s installation in Central London of a camera high up on a blank wall, pointing at another blank wall inscribed with the words WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?, is therefore pointed.

Again, nowhere does Banksy suggest that the subculture that he has elected to join—that of the urban disaffected, dressed in its uniform of sneakers and hoods, resentful of its economic impotence, disdainful of refinement, enterprising only in crime, individualistic but lacking in individuality, egotistic in its imposition of its ways on others—might bear some responsibility for a situation to which the installation of cameras is an admittedly fatuous and ineffective response. Consider the cover of his book Wall and Piece, now in its 37th printing in the United Kingdom alone, which shows one of his most famous images: a young man, his baseball cap worn backward and his mouth masked, in the pose of a thrower of a Molotov cocktail but throwing a bouquet of flowers. The image suggests what is clearly untrue—namely, that such young men are generally peaceful. You wouldn’t survive long on London’s meaner streets if you took this suggestion seriously. Inside the book, by the way, Banksy has characteristically attempted to have his cake and eat it, too, inserting a statement that reads, “Against his better judgement Banksy has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.”

Banksy’s little jokes can be damaging in their effect, as Wall and Piece attests only too clearly. Banksy painted the words DESIGNATED GRAFFITI AREA in an official-looking way on three whitewashed walls in elegant areas of London, and they were shortly covered with the horrible and idiotic graffiti that usually targets only concrete walls and tunnels. Banksy argues that all public space should be available for self-expression by the people, forgetting that the majority of the people may want to express themselves by leaving elegant blank walls elegantly blank. But then, they are only people, not the people, a crucial distinction in Banksy’s mind.

Despite his wit, Banksy’s sensibility is both conventional and adolescent. Evidence of his conformism is that all his targets are easy and of the sort chosen by the lumpenintelligentsia (which does not, again, mean that they are necessarily unworthy). For Banksy, it is always “four legs good, two legs bad”: a simplistic worldview in which the common people, as defined by their authenticity, opposition to authority, lack of respect for property rights, and indifference to high culture, can do no wrong, while the rest, inauthentic, law-abiding or themselves in authority, careful of their own property and respectful of others’, and cultured in the traditional sense, can do no right and are either fools or oppressors.

This worldview is that of the eternal adolescent, ever eager to shock the grown-ups with his supposedly contrary views, cleverly and uncompromisingly expressed. Truth comes a distant second to effect. When Banksy said, one Christmas, “At this time of year it’s easy to forget the true meaning of Christianity—the lies, the corruption, the abuse,” he was not so much enunciating a truth as establishing his credentials as a fearless iconoclast; though it would obviously be far more iconoclastic in certain circles (those in which he moves, for example) to have said something more truthful and less adolescent.

When Banksy painted MIND THE CRAP on the steps of the Tate Gallery in London (a reference to the recording played in some London Underground stations to warn passengers to “mind the gap”), he was adopting an egotistic adolescent attitude toward all that had come before himself. He has often said that art in galleries consists of trophies in the cabinets of a few millionaires, whereas his own art is superior because it, at least when produced in the street, is free to the whole population. Let us overlook this facile and grossly inaccurate summation of art history and overlook, too, the fact that entry to the Tate Gallery and most other British art galleries is free. Note only that Banksy goes far beyond even the Stalinist theory of art, which, whatever its dictates to the present generation of artists, never altogether denied the artistic achievements of the past, even if they were stimulated by aristocrats, millionaires, or priests. Banksy’s professed attitude screams, “Now! Now! Now! Me! Me! Me! Before me, nothing; after me, everything!”

Others similarly overestimate Banksy’s artistic importance. In a book about Banksy, journalist William Ellsworth-Jones quotes Marc Schiller, a man who devotes a website to street art:

We now see Banksy as the single greatest thing that has happened not only to the street/urban art movement, but to contemporary art in general . . . . Most people need entry points to become comfortable with things that are new. And for millions of people, Banksy is the entry point they need in not only seeing art in a new way, but in accepting art as a part of their daily lives. Like Andy Warhol before him, Banksy has almost single handedly redefined what art is to a lot of people who probably never felt they appreciated art before.

One is reminded of Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, who never knew that he was speaking prose; and I recall a patient of mine, an art student who told me that her art history class began with Roy Lichtenstein. If Philip Larkin were alive today, he would have to write: “Artistic endeavor began / In nineteen sixty-three. . . .” It is obvious that so foreshortened a sense of artistic history constitutes not an opening but a complete closure of the mind.

A man with an exceptional understanding of this kind of cultural vandalism, this deliberate, ignorant, and barbaric destruction of an immemorial cultural inheritance, is Simon Leys, the great Belgian sinologist now living in Australia. During and just after the Cultural Revolution in China, Leys wrote books that explained how great a catastrophe the Revolution was and deplored, with excoriating wit that made you laugh out loud, the many idiocies of Western fellow travelers who claimed that the immolation of civilization represented some kind of progress.

As it happens, Leys is not only a sinologist but also the greatest contemporary essayist I know. In his wonderful book Le bonheur des petits poissons, he recounts the following story about philistinism. He was in an ordinary Australian café. People were talking, playing cards, reading the newspaper; a radio was playing banal popular music interspersed with the usual inane chatter of the disc jockeys. Suddenly, and completely unexpectedly, the radio began to play the first movement of Mozart’s clarinet quintet; and, Leys writes, this ordinary café was transformed into “the antechamber of paradise.” Everyone in the café stopped what he was doing; there was silence, astonishment. Then one of the men got up, went over to the radio, and tuned it to another station that purveyed the kind of banality that had preceded Mozart. This brought a kind of relief.

Leys says that the true philistine is not he who does not care to discriminate between the good and the bad, but he who discriminates and chooses the bad. Banksy is such a philistine, and his talent is not an extenuating but an aggravating circumstance.

Top Photo: rafalkrakow/iStock


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