A Defense of Banksy

Dancers on a Plane by Jasper Johns

Once again, I feel compelled to address some claims made by the art critic Jonathan Jones at The Guardian.  This time, Jones has written a piece attacking Banksy.  This in itself is not the problem.  The problem is that the attack makes very little sense under close examination.

Here is the crux of Jones’s argument:

Some art can exist just as well in silence and obscurity as on the pages of newspapers. The Mona Lisa is always being talked about, but even if no one ever again concocted a headline about this roughly 510-year-old painting it would still be as great. The same is true of real modern art. A Jasper Johns painting of a network of diagonal marks surrounded by cutlery stuck to the frame, called Dancers On a Plane – currently in an exhibition at the Barbican – was just as real, vital and profound when it was hidden away in the Tate stores as it is under the gallery lights. Johns does not need fame to be an artist; he does not even need an audience. He just is an artist, and would be if no one knew about him. Banksy is not an artist in that authentic way.

I strongly disagree that art can exist in a vacuum; I think it needs an audience to be art.  Thus, I cannot fathom the absurdity in the statement that Jasper Johns “does not even need an audience” to be an artist.  How does that work exactly?  It doesn’t.  Jones is simply presupposing a metaphysical reality in which art possesses inherent value independent of humans.  This presupposition, being fictional, remains unsupported.  How can a work remain profound if no one is around to bestow the value of profundity upon it?  And does it not take a human mind to transform Jasper Johns’s “network of diagonal marks surrounded by cutlery stuck to the frame” into a cohesive whole?  Truly, then, one cannot dismiss Banksy on the grounds that his work demands an audience.  All art does.

Another problem that I have with Jones’s argument is that he takes the properties that make Banksy aesthetically interesting to most people and transforms them into Banksy’s aesthetic shortcomings:

Banksy, as an artist, stops existing when there is no news about him. Right now he is a story once again, because a “mural” by him (street art and graffiti no longer suffice to describe his pricey works) has been removed from a wall and put up for auction. Next week the story will be forgotten, and so will Banksy – until the next time he becomes a headline.

Part of Banksy’s “art” is in the impermanence of his pieces and in the confrontational nature of his “murals” that are designed to disrupt people from their daily routines to make them stop and notice something, to see things differently.  Perhaps comparisons to static pieces like the Mona Lisa are not the best means to understand performance-based work of this nature (though I admit that because the art market has laid claim to Banksy, such comparisons are not necessarily off base, either).

But “street art” is hardly the first recognized art form to be temporary and confrontational in the manner adopted by Banksy. And why does Jones consider fame and branding as faults or weaknesses of the artist?  These attributes were obviously as essential in solidifying the legacies of the artists whom Jones admires as they were in elevating Banksy above his peers.

Jones claims that he wants “art that is physically and intellectually and emotionally real.”  Unfortunately for him, as his blog on Banksy makes clear, he seems to have no idea what that even means.

Further reading:

Banksy goes AWOL

70 thoughts on “A Defense of Banksy

    • Artist are artist because they do not define but they create. It’s a shame that most people shovel obese amounts of definite deaths into the very body that houses a creation. That creation happens the second that person begins to undo the billions names accepted by the world and starts moving her spirit with the greatness that has allows been available to the ones defined only by crowds but never again accepting a voice as worthy and valuable because the nouns defined the outcome to be such. I am free to give myself away freely….the true artist is not the ones you know but the ones you become

  1. Beethoven is an artist who only exists in the ear of the public. Some music can exist just as well in silence and obscurity as on the stages of concert halls. “Happy Birthday” is always being sung, but even if no one ever again concocted a party with this roughly 101-year-old song, it would still be as great. The same is true of real modern music. A Girl Talk recording of a network of hip-hop lyrics surrounded by rhythm tracks from the 1960s, called “Make Me Wanna” – currently available for download by Illegal Art – was just as real, vital and profound when the samples were hidden away in their separate original recordings as it is under the club lights. Girl Talk does not need fame to be an artist; he does not even need an audience. He just is an artist, and would be if no one knew about him. Beethoven is not an artist in that authentic way. Beethoven, as an artist, stops existing when there are no performances of him. Right now he is a story once again, because a “symphony” by him has been removed from an auditorium and digitally converted for iTunes. Next week the symphony will be forgotten, and so will Beethoven – until the next time he becomes a headline.

    Beethoven’s art has no life as art, no aesthetic or even anti-aesthetic effect, no content beyond the trite, no personality. It is an archetypal product of our society: it exists only to be talked about, the perfect message for social media.

    I want art that is physically and intellectually and emotionally real. I want a Lou Reed album studded inside with feedback like an inverted Congo fetish; a Bjork recording of a dwarf dancer; a Danger Mouse fighter plane. All these and more pieces of art are on iTunes right now. When people stop listening, they will still be masterpieces. Great art burns in the imagination; Beethoven fizzes mildly in some other, less important part of the mind.

    (Jonathan Jones, “The Guardian,” with minor alterations.)

  2. Banksy is a featured artist on the AQA Art GCSE paper this year (question 3 – Stencils) I hardly think that he will be forgotten next week.

    • I think the fact that Banksy is included in a school syllabus only tells you that examiners think he is accessible to young people. I like him. He’s fun and I don’t like pomposity in any form.

  3. Actually, I agree with Jones’ criticism. Art isn’t about fame, it’s about genius. Naturally, it takes someone to see a work of genius to know it exists. How do we know genius? Well, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes it takes time before it’s even realized genius is there in a work/artist. Conversely, sometimes it takes time to realize there was “no there there”. Sometimes “genius” is a matter of opinion. Not everyone will agree when a work or an artist is labeled “genius”. To me, Banksy is clever. Actually, I think he’s a creative, smart, clever, ambitious, and interesting individual. Nothing wrong with that.

  4. my boyfriend is an artist- his initial inspiration was Jean-Michel Basquiat and has branched off into his own abstract work. i know he had a real appreciation for street art since that is essentially from where his art derives. he always tells me that people who critique in an unconstructive way or who have nothing but negativity to bring to the table are people who possess anger and jealousy because they are not following their own dreams. his response to anyone who doesnt like someones work is “well let me see YOU do it better” and thats when you usually hear crickets. most people (not all) who critique or write reviews that bash anyone so harshly usually are those who couldnt successfully do that of which they are critiquing so they find a negative outlet to satisfy their disappointments. although its such a crazy form of art that Banksy lives within, to say that he will be forgotten is just silly. he is a part of an era and will always be pointed out as example in a realm of art.
    i appreciate what you had to say- thanks for sharing.

    sincerelywhitney.com
    nicholas blackham art

  5. Art is something, anything, thats created to be of meaning it doesnt matter what the meaning is. Banksy has a crap load of meaning connected to his works and if anybody has any sense of art and design history they wil know that Banksy classifies as an artist. Art evolves with tecnology…so maybe its not the renaissance art that most people only classifies as art but its also not the 17th century anymore.

  6. In my opinion Banksy exists as an artist when people encounter his art – on the street, in a gallery, through his movie, wherever. There isn’t “news” about these daily interactions, but they are encounters with the art nevertheless. I think Jones, as an art critic for a newspaper, is being a bit self-serving in defining news coverage as the criterion that determines if an artist “exists”.

  7. Never heard of this Banksy dude before. Just googled his stuff. I like it. WTF is that Jones dude’s problem? I hardly think, in a world where Van Gogh’s work never sold for anything more than pocket change during his lifetime, that being shoved off the front page of the newspaper by the Kardashian du jour is a valid judgment of an artist’s worth.

  8. There’s beauty everywhere we look. If someone’s harnessing it and bravely standing up for political and social change at the same time, who would we be to say that’s not art? Beauty backed by courage is the definition of art!

  9. If a tree falls in the forest and no one sees it, is it art? To paraphrase O’Casey, “What is art, Joxer? What is art?” If you think it is or it is not art, you’re probably right.

  10. I like what you say here. I read that article and the amount of non-sense it makes to me is pretty close to astounding. It seems much more like jealousy or just general bitchiness to something that people like that actually for once isn’t bad for them in some way. There are a few pieces that I’ve seen by Bansky that are pretty much burned into my memory because of the way they hit me initially. To me, the box of nails that the author links to doesn’t really make sense, but I’m sure to some it does. Either way, great post.

  11. I think the Jones is right indirectly on point. My first reaction was hate but I think this is exactly where things should be and where we’re comparing Da Vinci and Banksy.

    Mona Lisa and the way Da Vinci changed the way people of the time perceived art, how he found the realism and expression is just exactly what Banksy is doing for us.

    I love art, it’s a part of me, and nothing has struck me as deeply or more profoundly as his work on the west bank wall.

    I hope many many generations after I’ve passed on someone is comparing _____ to what Banksy did for us.

  12. I think that art falls under more of an opinion than a definition. I don’t think it either needs an audience or it doesn’t. It depends on the art and the kind of person.

  13. Authenticity is a curious accusation to level in itself, does he mean literally or metaphorically? He seems to be saying inherently authentic in an arty farty way, but in regards to actual authenticity of someone who is now at least ‘famed’ for his art, it poses other questions going forward. Last year we were debating Banksy in a history course at the University of Queensland and the issue of whether any graffiti, be it from Roman times, or stone work with the name ‘Jane’ (allegedly Seymour, though could just of easily been another incarcerated inmate of the same name) removed from one part of the Tower of London and displayed in another, to Banksy, sparked a lot of arguments between students. Is obscure ancient street graffiti that hasn’t seen the light of day for thousands of years art? or is just an historical artefact? The moment that any piece of wall is removed and shipped off elsewhere to be displayed, already reduces, for me, the artistry of the piece in it’s original setting, but then the same could be said I guess of any art that is preserved, curated and re cast in a gallery/museum, or merely stored away to exist merely as a ‘did the tree really fall’ in the forest hypothesis.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think that Jones means “authentic” in an indefensible “arty farty” way, as you say. In regard to the question of whether obscure ancient street graffiti can be art, I agree that the meaning of such pieces changes once they are moved to a new setting, but I don’t know if it reduces the artistry. Perhaps in a new setting we can look at the artistry under a different light and find new meaning in the work.

  14. Some of us believe that great art moves us in a sensory fashion. If the work makes us feel something, even it if is not a good feeling, it is a good work. The Mona Lisa is famous. If it were not famous, most people would twist their mouths while viewing it, then move on to the next image. The Mona Lisa is not that great on its own. It took a price tag to make it talk, and a lot of publicity to make famous.

    I agree that “Banksy is an artist. He doesn’t need news to help his talent. What the writer of that article was saying about “Banksy” was more to the tune of “I think Banksy doesn’t deserve the attention,” than comments on the art itself. What is art, is a question that can only be answered by the individual viewing it.

    I cannot say anything about the other man mentioned, because I do not know who he is. Perhaps if Jasper Johns was in the news more often, I would know him and his work.

    • I think you make a very valid point with your Mona Lisa example, and I think this says a lot about people’s reactions to art and how they can be influenced by expectations and the aura of fame. Thank you.

  15. Whether we are talking about Monalisa or Banksy or any other art or artist, they may differettionate with meduims, styles and way of thinking but at the end they are all under rhe dome of ART. As long as Banksy had started something and people knew about it..he is absolutely known. Some of them might forget about, some may start following his recent work and others may have an inspiration through his work and would start a new art for them selves. In that way Banksy did his point. No matter the newspaper is still mintioning him or not, he started his way.

  16. You’re both right. Banksy is a fantastic artist of his time and will be referenced for years to come, but art can live in a vacuum. I’m positive there have been some fantastic works of art in all the fields that no soul besides the artist themselves ever witnessed. I’m not sure that because nobody noticed makes them less “valuable”.

  17. While the likes of Hirst and Quinn create pretentious stuff about global issues of life, death and universe, Banksy does things that drill down to the social nerve, offering amazing generalisations and insights. THe problem of Jones is that he’s a really bad critic, who needs an occasional boost to his own morale provided by arrogant stance towards some of the artists who do not take part in the bogus Turner prize competition, but are loved by people. People, who are so much below the snobbish heights of Jones. He’s not worth arguing with, really.

  18. Banksy is a wonderful artist! He should be remembered in times to come, appreciated for his art form and style, and for future reference you would think. Like richardsalcido (above)there are masterpieces never yet viewed by many! For sure the greatest of singers may rarely be heard, and the same for all Art created. Me thinks Banksy will be remembered a long time after Johnsy???

  19. This was a very good read. I don’t think Jones realises that by writing this article he has supported the very legitimacy of Banksy as an artist… Art questions society, and makes people question themselves. Banksy has the innate ability to infuriate pompous elitists or politicians/council workers etc. but also inspire the youth and any other art loving person out there. He has infuriated Jones because to him Banksy is not an “authentic” artist. Since when did art have barriers and restrictions? Art is anything you can create, whether it’s plastered on a wall or hanging in a gallery. I have no doubt that Banksy will be remembered many years down the line as one of the forerunners in the Street Art movement as Da Vinci is remembered for his work throughout the Renaissance period.

    Jones’ argument about an artist not needing an audience to be an artist is ambiguous as all hell. How would an artist be an artist if there were no audience labelling their work as art? I think to be an artist means to create, whether you choose to share your work with an audience is your decision BUT if no one knows about your work, if no one is critiquing, questioning or getting something from it, how can you be sure you’re an artist?

    http://beidealistic.wordpress.com/

  20. I don’t like Banksy’ “work” at all, it’s nothing more than an extension of “modern” art which to me is crap. There’s no humanity, no depth, no emotion, no beauty, just clever stencils.

    Then again, I’m a relic, a dinosaur, from the Age of Van Gogh. Unless you’re prepared to pour your soul onto the canvas don’t even try.

  21. Jones has clearly missed the memo on the importance and relevance of street/urban art. Thank you for your well written retort to his blanket dismissal of a respected street artist. Well done.

  22. Reblogged this on chartreuse and commented:
    Thank you. I appreciate art in every attempt entirely because it is subjective. I don’t get it sometimes. I don’t even think it needs to be a ~think piece. Does it add value or relevance or connect…? That’s it. I appreciate the need for a history. 500+ years of evolution has an impact on more than life itself- the education and communication of art can follow suit too. Mona had her day in the light. Let’s please move forward.

  23. The thing that infuriates me about Jonathan Jones’s article is that he seems to believe that the people coming into contact with Banksy’s work will only be affected while that work stays in the papers; as if street art isn’t one of the most accessible forms of art in the city. The piece that went missing last weekend (from my neighbourhood) will continue to be remembered and that community will keep fighting for it to come back, and even if that doesn’t happen and the stories drop out of the papers I really doubt that the pride they had in work on their doorstep will fade as quickly. Great blog. this was my take on the recent Banksy scandal http://creativise.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/banksy-goes-awol/

  24. I think Jones is sniffily espousing elitism. I believe that Banksy is a true artist AND a great self-publicist. I love his work for its delicate aesthetic and for the way it challenges stereotypes and provokes thought. I’m from Bristol too – Google me!

  25. I’ve seen the Mona Lisa and I’ve read about it. Yes I’ve even read the famous essay by Pater (?). Obviously I’m a bit ignoramus who knows nothing it all but the Mona Lisa just does absolutely nothing for me. Let the critics discuss what is art and what isn’t. One day a meteor will hit the earth and that will be that so let’s be brave and just like what we like?!

  26. People started painting in cave walls thousands of years ago. So it just makes sense to take it to the streets. People who write articles like Jones are just mad that some hood rat, and not some stuck up chap with a sweater wrapped around his neck, sipping a $400.00 bottle of brandy in Rolls Royce actually has talent. People can say whatever they want but humans evolve. Portraits and landscapes are awesome, but are played out. So at least someone is doing something different! At the worst Banksy is a sellout, but that doesn’t make him a bad artist. I would bet Banksy could hold his own on a canvas, as most real artists tend to have natural talent in all media.

  27. The artist brain produces the natural chemical serotonin (fell good stuff) as they work. A spike also occurs in some on-lookers, as well. It clearly is why we humans keep coming back for more. How does any human think they can decide for another that it does not occur in them? In Banksy’s case, it can not be denied, that he has created serotonin in a lot of people.

  28. Banksy is a lightning-rod. Art is lightning. It shocks us and makes us think. IMO Banksy >> Jasper Johns. Some people seem to equate “worth” and intrinsic artistic value with Sotheby’s auction results. Give me Banksy and Shepard Fairey any day.

  29. What Jonathan Jones has written is so absurd I’m surprised that you even bothered to respond to it.

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