‘Why I believe that Banksy is a bad artist’

Paint the town: Banksy’s latest mural pays homage to the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. © Getty
by Jonathan Jones

An art critic who has written frequently for The Guardian and appeared in the BBC television series Private Life of a Masterpiece. In 2009 he was a judge for the Turner Prize. He has also been a judge for the BP Portrait Award.

Two new Banksy artworks have recently appeared in London. Art critic Jonathan Jones argues that Banksy’s work is “crass” and “sentimental”, and symbolises the dumbing-down of culture.

People are stupid. Wait, hear me out. I didn’t say that – although in a time when Donald Trump can get elected US president and a referendum can doom Britain to inglorious isolation, haven’t you occasionally wondered?

I was merely paraphrasing the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, who in his book Modern Painters opines that “the average intellect and feeling of the majority of the public” give them zero competence “to distinguish what is really excellent”. Only a critic, such as himself, with superior sensibility and knowledge can judge what is truly great in art.

I was provoked too when I read this – how can anyone so dismiss popular opinion? Yet the fact that Banksy’s Girl with Balloon has just been voted Britain’s best-loved work of art makes me wonder if Ruskin had a point.

He has invented the artistic equivalent of a tweet. You see it. You get it. Is that really what we want?

Let’s look at Girl with Balloon and see if it deserves its popularity. A girl whose hair and dress are blowing forwards in the wind reaches up to clutch the string of her heart-shaped red balloon. The gust has pulled it out of her hand. It’s away. Aw. Is there any more to say? She is depicted as a simplified black shadow on the wall.

I could say this fast street-art stencilling technique suggests the ephemerality not only of the image itself, doomed to be whitewashed by the authorities, but of us all, and our feelings. Yet in reality the effect is to brutally reduce human emotions to the crass and obvious. Instead of portraying a rich human being with mysterious emotions, Banksy gives us a one-dimensional icon whose pathos is instantly readable.

This makes him a brilliant propagandist. He never allows room for ambiguity. Early Soviet film theorists loved to show how montage can change the meaning of an image. A man smiles. Juxtapose it with a workers’ march: he’s a proletarian. Juxtapose it with a pile of gold: he’s an evil capitalist. Banksy has taken propaganda one step further into absolute simplification.

He has invented the artistic equivalent of a tweet. You see it, you get it. Is that really all we want?

This is what scares and depresses me about Banksy. The very lack of art in his art is what makes it popular. Real art is elusive, complex, ambiguous and often difficult. Actually, remove that qualifier. It is always difficult. This does not mean it is inaccessible.

Constable’s painting The Hay Wain has an “instant” appeal as a nostalgic image of the English countryside. Look at it a second time and you see it is so much more – a sensitive study of light and atmosphere, a poem to clouds and water: a profoundly mysterious painting you can study for a lifetime. This is partly true of all worthwhile art whatsoever.

We need to reject bullying populism in art. We need to reject it in politics too, if we want democracy to survive. In art at least it should be easy to state the obvious fact that majority taste is often dead wrong.

Under its fake radicalism, Banksy’s Girl with Balloon is the kind of sentimental tosh our great grandparents too would have voted as Britain’s best-loved. Its kitsch pathos resembles one of the most popular Victorian images, John Everett Millais’ painting Bubbles, a picture of a child blowing bubbles used as an advert for Pear’s Soap. Today we sneer at them for liking such soppy stuff. Imagine how future generations will mock us for sanctifying Banksy, the Boaty McBoatface of modern art.

This is an extract of a longer piece, reprinted with kind permission. For the full essay please see the top link in Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Is graffiti art or vandalism?

Activities

  1. Research some other works by Banksy. Pick your favourite painting. Do you think Banksy is trying to communicate a message through the work? If so, what message?

Word Watch

John Ruskin
Victorian art critic and writer (1819-1900).
Girl with Balloon
A mural created by Banksy in 2002. He has adapted the image to coincide with a number of events and causes. In 2014 he redrew the girl as a young Syrian for a campaign supporting refugees.
Ephemerality
The concept of things only existing briefly.
Proletarian
Related to members of the working class.
Constable
English artist, most famous for painting landscapes of the English countryside (1886-1837).
John Everett Millais
English Victorian artist. A founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he is known for his realistic portraits of famous literary characters, for example Ophelia from Hamlet (1829-1896).

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