COMMENTARY: Art World Hype, Hypocrisy and Banksy


A typical Banksy witticism

Part of what I want this blog to do is highlight certain notable figures of the commercialized contemporary art world to a new audience.

I’d like to help educate all those good people who, up until now, have been uninterested, alienated, or even hostile to the efforts of today’s educated creative classes and their deep-pocketed supporters. From what I see, this potential audience of the disengaged is practically everyone in entire world.

What I want this newly attentive audience to appreciate is how correct they were to reject this garbage all along. This involves exposing the corruption festering away in the greedy and debased hearts of the institutions who have forced these toxins on an unwilling culture.

I also like to talk about inspirational figures and exciting new paths I see developing, but that’s for another post. I do see this as a time of renewal and opportunities. The future will be what we make of it, and I see a gathering of forces that ultimately will change the course of civilization. It’s part of what artists do; on an archetypal level we get the news before others, and help spread the word. Big changes are coming.

But the first step of recovery is to admit we have a problem, and the art world is a serious problem indeed.

Not many people are intrigued by the machinations of contemporary art. It’s understandable, because of the contemporary art world’s unwitting manifestation of not one, but two, Spinal Tap memes:

1. The popularity of contemporary art isn’t waning, it’s appeal is becoming more selective.

2. It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.

Which leads us to Banksy.

He (or she, or they, no one knows for sure) is an Important Artist Innovator of this Era, according to the establishment. What Banksy is infamous for is a series of anonymous graffiti works which feature all the scathing insight that a radicalized high school newspaper editorial cartoonist could muster, and the keen observational humor usually found in the greeting cards offered for sale at Kinko’s.



Take that, fascists!


You see, that’s funny, because they are not holding guns, but bananas instead.

Banksy has all the weight of the elites behind him because he gives expression to the doublethink contradictions they can’t admit to themselves. He fits in with the same unsustainable “Anarchists For Big Government” vibe that made the Occupy movement such a debacle.

The problem is yesterday’s anti-establishment is now the establishment itself. It likes the privileges that come with control of the media, academia, the arts and government. Big business is no fool, it’s toeing the party line now too. But the whole self-concept and self-aggrandizement of this counter-culture hinges on it being “counter,” and that is no longer the case. What’s an edgy rebel to do when your fellow travelers have Gramscied their way into cultural domination? How can you speak truth to power, when you ARE the power?

Since integrity is not a factor, it simply becomes a matter of marketing strategy.

When talking about Banksy with others in art community, a typical comment is “You’ve got to hand it to the guy, he gets lots of hype.” People have been hypnotized into thinking buzz equals significance.

Is that what is important about art, how well somebody advertises themselves? It’s what the art establishment would have you believe, because it plays into their control. To gain their assistance in the promotion of your art, you better conform to their priorities, share their views, and show the proper obsequence. This leads to the stifling of free expression, which in turn has led to the visual arts undergoing a crisis of relevance in our culture.

A summation of Banksy’s merit came in 2013. On the streets of New York City a surrogate street vendor set up a booth that offered genuine Banksy stencil and spray paint canvases for $60 each. These “originals” could have been worth a million through a gallery or auction house, but thousands people passed by the display without any interest at all. In the end there were 3 sales, including two pieces to a patron that demanded a discount off the already low price.

Once the truth came out, of course the works soared in value. The power of Name Brand Recognition kicked in to make these small purchases the equivalent of winning some weird lottery. Two of the canvases recent sold for $214,000.

So who got it right-the hordes of people walking by who saw nothing worth noticing, or the suckers who paid extravagant fees to possess a relic of someone’s networking skills?

Perhaps English media figure Charlie Brooker summed it up best: Banksy gained such art world stature because “…his work looks dazzlingly clever to idiots. And apparently that’ll do.”


30 thoughts on “COMMENTARY: Art World Hype, Hypocrisy and Banksy

  1. Hi,

    I wrote about that Banksy street deal a couple days later:

    So Banksy Made 420 Dollars. Is That a Problem?

    That’s enough spray paint and stencils for a week, several omelets, and a warm coat at the sharing store. I don’t see the irony. I see a very lucky artist. I also see why McDonald’s and Walmart mean so much to us in our gentle insides. We peasants at the altar of the cult of art praying out the wet dreams of businessmen in Italian suits. Bishop Banksy has been made. The Pope is any millionaire ready to invest. The common man does not want a black and white original Banksy except to behave like a millionaire. Isn’t it obvious? The canvases on sale in New York the other day were worth more than the art that was printed on them. Banksy knows. I know. What lovers of art and artist need to do now is stop worshiping false idols, get up off their lazy crumps, make their own art, or find what their own private wonder loves, and pray to it. David Geffen is a dirty old man. Art should never have made this toad richer. Ralph and Ricki Lauren would buy a Banksy to show their textile slaves how to work harder for less money. We need to devalue their pieces now. We must de-gentrify the crap they are over-valuing, especially the historical stuff, which is our crap, humanities’ crap. In order to make it Native American like lovers carving initials into oak, we need to congratulate the old dude who made a killing on the street this week. On Sotheby’s auction day, a hundred of our most famous must sell their work on the street for a song. Mock every tuxedo they see with a $25.00 original for sale. The bubble will burst only when we stop graduating out of industrial universities more “Hey Spikes!” to tell us what we should like. Christies is hawking porch furniture to gated communities in my art market dreams of the future. Men and women artists are drinking beer along the roadside, playing cards and thinking about dinner.

  2. I don’t think you’re really being very fair to Banksy. In fact, I think you’d find him an ally.

    “The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists.. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.”

  3. This is such a good post Richard.

    In some recent research I was doing for a book I’m writing on parallel subjects, I came across some brilliant stuff in Suzi Gablik’s classic,’Has modernism failed?’. She was already questioning in 1981, the doubtful role of radical anti-establishment artists who’s anti -social art statements were showing in museums. Like, where’s the credibility in that, by getting absorbed into the consumerist culture, you, automatically lose your credibility as commentator on that culture. Very few artists today are willing to take a radical stance against the status quo. It has lost its romance, and in the age of Facebook pseudo popularity, who wants to become alienated. You are indeed taking astance through your writing, and I through not exhibiting and through my writing, but I don’t rely solely on my art for my income anymore.

    Do you think your highly intelligent and radical thoughts are getting to the people who need to read them, among them, the artists who have bought into the idea that they too can earn a 6 figure income with their art?

    Oh, I so agree with you that mediocre art rules in an age where marketing is WAY MORE important than quality.

    Sarah, waving and cheering from northern Holland. ps, I kinda like Banksy, sorry 😦 . But agree with your take on his popularity.

  4. So glad you say “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” And I love your captions–reminded me of the National Lampoon’s MAD Magazine Parody which included “Photos of Spiro Agnew Except He’s Wearing a Beanie Hat Dept.” Good succinct work here, Richard!

  5. Thanks for sharing Sarah! Who knows where these ideas will end up it the vast accessibility of the internet. I am just one of many, across many fields of endeavor, who are not willing to let the corruption go on unchallenged. We are the swing of the pendulum.

  6. I appreciate your viewpoint, and thanks for sharing the quote. What I say is by their works you shall know them, and I personally haven’t seen anything about Banksy that doesn’t fit in comfortably with the elitist status quo and their poses of sham rebelliousness. The artists I know aren’t slow and self-obsessed. He must be talking about his own peer group. 🙂

  7. You are a poet! Now that is a vision I can rally behind. Fire up the barbeque, polish up the weapons, and keep typing that manifesto. There’s some rough road ahead, and if you think we’ve got it bad, wait until you see what’s going to happen to the other guys. Tragically they believed their own press releases. and therefore never saw it coming.

  8. Excellent piece Richard. My only (slight) misgiving is your inclusion of a quote by Charlie Booker; yes, it’s amusing and, as with Julie Burchill’s comment on Stephen Fry (“A stupid person’s idea of an intelligent person”) quite true. However, I would see Booker as part of the problem being, as he is, a professional contrarian who, like Banksy (or Cassette Boy, who I find very amusing) tilts at all the predictable and acceptable targets (Burchill would be the equivalent on the “Right”/Dail Mail end of the spectrum). How much more interesting and challenging this “anti- establishment” establishment (all claim or are presented as possessing, maverick status) were to challenge some of the precepts of their core audience. Back in the 80’s Rik Mayall’s character in the Young Ones could poke fun at the silliness of the naive if well meaning SWP “Right on” student, as there was still a traditional left (the miners and/or members of the dwindling industries) fighting the rot of Thatcher’s “service economy” revolution. Nowadays we don’t have to think, find fault in our respective political/ideological camps or seek a definition of success that doesn’t source from economic “value”…sorry, I’ve gone off topic a bit. Once again, thanks for this great, thought provoking piece

  9. Thanks for your insights. I must admit I’m not that familiar with Charlie Booker, and I don’t know how Banksy is perceived in the UK. But here, in the art community (because hardly anyone outside the tiny art bubble even knows about that artist) Banksy is a sacred cow, celebrated for his inane knee jerk pop politics. In this era where free speech is under assault Banksy is a tool that aims his critiques in lockstep with the covert agenda of the governing class, as they try to dumb down the population and encourage the disorder that will give them excuses for further repression.

  10. You summed up my opinion of Banksy’s, um, “street art” perfectly. Graffiti is vandalism, and no one considers the property owner’s rights when Banksy applies his misdirected juvenile angst and ill-informed graphic commentary where it is unwanted.

    If a “Banksy” featuring a lynched klansman appeared on side of your house, would you leave it untouched as a work of art, or would you risk the wrath of the Banksy defenders by painting it over?

    I know what I’d do- Hire a contractor to cut it out, studs and stucco and all, post it on Ebay for an exorbitant amount, and sell it to some wealthy sap who considers it “art.” [Hey, Banksy, what’s your schedule these days?]

  11. It would be like winning some weird lottery to be tagged by that hack! Thanks for your comments-we all need to start taking a more active role in refusing to swallow the garbage they try to feed us.

  12. Banksy’s probably in his 30s by now, and by now he should have the cojones and maturity to show himself in public and discuss his intents. He’d become an instant celebrity who could parlay his new found wealth (via product endorsements and speaking engagements) into more charitable venues than vandalism could ever accomplish.

    We’d also likely find out that he is a spoiled brat brought up by relatively prosperous liberal parents… but that’s unfair speculation on my part.

  13. […] The cultural institutions have replaced art with artifice, an empty mimicry of the outer appearances and gestures of art, without partaking of any of its true substance and significance. Where once the ruling class subsidized creative geniuses like Michelangelo and Pablo Picasso, they now throw money at marketing hucksters like Jeff Koons, or propaganda shills like Banksy. […]

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