A Critique of Banksy — Zeitgeist of the Modern Age

“He looks to current politically relevant stories for his easel, and dull disconnection as his paintbrush.”

Most individuals who pay attention to even a smidgen of the art world will recognize the piece depicted to the left. Balloon Girl is a picture of a small child letting go of a heart shaped balloon, which has been adapted into many different forms by the artist, Banksy. The street art is simple stencil, but the impact of the image is non-negligible, with this street art rated as Britain’s favorite piece of artwork in 2017.

What makes Banksy so important?

Banksy is praised for his ability to create street art and imagery that critiques society in a tongue-in-cheek manor. This is done through his simple imagery, yes, but also through the medium of art itself. Street art is oft-illegal in the areas where Banksy creates his art, and is almost always unsolicited in nature. Despite Banksy’s illegality, western society has been drawn to the art and puts prices on Banksy’s pieces that are in the hundreds of thousands or more.

Banksy’s art does present a problem.

With the success of Banksy and his ability to reach the hearts of many, he is able to critique ideas inherent to modern society, such as capitalism, sensationalism, and mass media. Banksy’s satire makes an argument — but it doesn’t deconstruct society and propose anything new. Through relying on easy satire, his focus on anonymity, and his lack of proposals for the future, Banksy fails to contribute anything but relatability to society.

Understanding Banksy’s Art

To properly critique Banksy’s influence on society, the audience needs to understand the ways Banksy properly communicates and interacts with the art world. The best way to do this is to simply take Banksy pieces and analyze what they are saying. The pictures depicted here all say something meaningful in a clear and simple way.

Banksy. Banksy work on Coney Island Avenue, unnamed.

The first image shows a man in a suit and tie using a increasing graph to scare a group of common folk. This image simply critiques ‘The Man’ of society and the way that profit drives a fearful and subservient society.

Banksy. Crayon House Foreclosure, 2011

The second image depicts a man in the process of boarding up the door to a girl’s crayon house, which expertly combines stencil with a crayon look to provide contrast. This piece highlights the way society’s focus on business and money gives way to ‘foreclosing’ imagination.

The third image was placed on a wall of the Barbican estate during a tribute to Jean-Michel Basquiat, which is a location that usually removes street art. Banksy satirizes the way the estate is making people pay to see a tribute to Basquiat, an artist whose work they would have likely removed if he were to have placed it there in his lifetime, at a point prior to his fame. All three of these images show that Banksy is fully capable of simple yet profound social critique, which is a point easily conceded.

Now that Banksy’s prowess has been justified, his art may be properly critiqued.

The first point of order is Banksy’s reliance on easy satire.

This is most blatantly seen in Banksy’s project Dismaland. Dismaland was a project Banksy ran in 2015 that classified itself as a “bemusement park,” with depictions of Cinderella and a crashed carriage with paparazzi surrounding her, symbolism pointing towards Princess Diana’s death, among other art pieces. Much of Dismaland was what could be described as easy satire. It poked fun in a miserably obvious way, to the point where the satire was dull and bland. Banksy to really say anything with the pieces, other than just pointing them out to the audience.

Banksy’s Rat with a Sign falls victim to the same pitfall as Dismaland. A rat with a dollar-sign necklace holds up a sign that calls the audience “fakes.” This just sounds like something Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye would say. It holds no more value than a piece of graffiti saying the exact same, except that it has Banksy’s signature rat attached to it. Perhaps that’s the reason Banksy has the rat holding the sign, a rat design which he politely “acquired” from Blek le Rat, another street artist. Banksy’s easy satire is prevalent in quite a few of his pieces, and the appeal is quickly lost.

Banksy’s Anonymity

Another major area of discussion is Banksy’s focus on anonymity. What may be seen as an interesting quirk that puts a focus on artwork instead of the artist quickly loses its appeal when examined more thoroughly. Banksy’s anonymity is quite simply a farce and a cop-out.

First, it is assumed by many that Banksy’s identity is already known to be Robert Gunningham, although this has never been confirmed nor denied. Despite this, Banksy seems adamant to hide behind the veil of anonymity. This defeats the purpose of Banksy’s attempts to disassociate from his artwork, because his anonymity is what gives his pieces such insane currency values.Banksy has essentially made himself into a postmodernist idea, making the image of the artist up to interpretation, which is illogical and, quite frankly, a failed idea.

Another point of critique: why should Banksy be focused on removing the artist from the art? Banksy could be using his position as the artist for the greater good, but he instead chooses to keep the two personas separate.

A great facet of art is its ability to transform and be transformed by the author’s personality. Andy Warhol, for example, used his art and his persona to amplify and combine the two for a greater impact upon society, and is remembered for it. Banksy, however, will fade into obscurity due to the inability of society to connect the art to a persona, and his anonymity will be exposed for what it is: a useless farce.

The point of anonymity connects to Banksy’s inability to say anything for the future. Banksy’s lack of a personality leaves the audience to decide what to do with his artwork.

Banksy. Gaza Tour Graffiti, unnamed.

Despite images such as the one above, which seems to have a clear and obvious message, Banksy doesn’t push the art further. He just leaves it there for the audience to interpret, and fails to perform a duty to society. If that is Banksy’s goal, it is lazy, and antithetical to his art.

Banksy makes politically relevant statements, but never seems able to attach himself to a single issue. Through the veil of anonymity and the lack of a clear focus, his artwork just cannot seem to latch onto anything. He looks to current politically relevant stories for his easel, and dull disconnection as his paintbrush.

How could he do better?

In comparison to art by Jean-Michel Basquiat, it is clear that Banksy’s emotion fails to shine through his work. Basquiat’s frothing anger and determination targeted at systemic racism, class struggle, and in general, the world, are evident in many of his paintings.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. La Hara. 1981

With Banksy, that anger is not present, instead replaced by a layer of satire that is essentially the South Park of art, which is not a compliment. Banksy’s work does not inspire creativity in the rage against society, it only encourages young impressionable minds to poke fun at societal issues and leave it at that.

Banksy’s controversial persona is an illusion.

Banksy also fails to challenge the world with anything controversial in his art, despite being considered such a controversial figure.

Andy Warhol, Oxidation series. 1978

Andy Warhol challenged the art world with his feelings on bodily expression in art through the Oxidation series, colloquially known as the piss paintings, and their vulgarity and freedom of expression. In contrast, Banksy uses simple to understand messages and easily accessed art mediums that do not challenge the audience whatsoever. There is hardly any room for interpretation in Banksy’s art.

He’s not the only one to blame.

Banksy isn’t entirely to blame for this behavior. In fact, Banksy is probably the best definition of a ‘product of the times.’ He reflects what our society has become, with satire being the modern zeitgeist. His works fit in with the political cartoons of our era as weak pieces that only serve a singular purpose. They are snarky and satirical pieces that only tease the synapses of the audiences’ brains, instead of fully engaging them. While Banksy and his fans may see him as some sort of mastermind, at the end of the day, it’s just simple satire attached to a big name.

Philosophy Student at Rochester Institute of Technology. I write/write about: Poems, Philosophy, Games, Art, Music, and anything I can wrap my brain around.

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