Hypocrisy in Art: The Banksy Paradox
A few weeks back, the ‘graffiti’ transcendent Banksy managed to make news headlines again across the country with a COVID inspired work. This time painting the London Underground, the work consisted of his recognisable (yet derivative) stencilled rat motif with an NHS healthcare and mask wearing advocacy. The work itself gained attention, though the apparent ‘unfortunate’ removal of the work by TFL sanitation staff is what really struck me. The pedestal on which this Banksy is put, regardless of the thousands of reprimanded, criminalised and incarcerated graf’ writers across the country, is a contentious matter in dire need of addressing.
Art’s subjective and personal nature ultimately renders it open to disapproval and banishing. Art evolves, morphs and does everything but stay still. The cyclical reinventing nature is a core part of its renewed interest; an astaticism unlike other cultural forms. Graffiti is a relatively nascent subsector of art in terms of theorisation, but the act of mark making on your environment is as old as human existence. Egyptian cave paintings and roman carvings have closer relation to the graffiti covered trainlines in Athens than a 3 metre tall Georg Baselitz in a white cube, though academic art history wouldn’t want to go into that.
Graffiti’s nature is one of dissent and subversion. Finally an art form which doesn’t revolve around who you know or which rooms you are able to get into. Tagging under a motorway bridge doesn’t require an MFA and thus it has always been seen as the fine art’s delinquent cousin whom few gatekeepers care to address with earnest. The advent and intertwining of graffiti and hip-hop culture during the 1970s in cities like New York and Philadelphia propelled the art form into the public eye, though not without an overwhelming outcry donning the act as ugly vandlism. With an essence of anti- (insert social hierarchical structure), graffiti seems at odds with the fine art auction sphere. Yet graffiti itself merged in the discourse of gallerists with the advent of artists like Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Martin Wong and more, all of which either personally indulged in or admired graffiti prior to gallery representation. These were figures fully established as artists due to the spaces they occupied, whilst concurrently adapting elements from a subculture frequently blamed for degeneracy and ascribed as pure vandalism.
Graffiti fundamentally rejects the elitism of so called ‘fine art’. Though many artists reject the market’s values, inequality and lack of diversity, they operate in the realm of ‘you have to be in it to change it’ – the idea a rotten structure is changed from the inside. Yet this idyllic mantra is subject to hypocrisy. Graffiti’s base line essence is a total rejection of what it means to occupy space in the art world: monetisation, legality, and notoriety. Therefore, despite overlap, the two entities do not completely coalesce.
The maximum sentence for graffiti in the UK is 10 years for adults and 2 years for offenders under 17. People marvel at the colourful alley ways of Shoreditch and pay a pretty penny for a Banksy tour, yet the fact is graf' writers do not only face prison time, but the bleak prospects for a prior convict. Does it really make sense that someone who wrote a moniker on a wall is unable to get the same jobs, loans, insurances and visas as someone who sold it at a gallery?
Heroising Banksy as the rebel who made it, whilst punishing everybody else with harsher sentences than most in Europe, is an explicit contradiction and shows where the loyalty lies between commerce and morality in the art world. This morbid offshoot of the highly problematic ‘broken windows theory’ needs to be reassessed not only by UK law makers but also by us as consumers of media and art. I understand graffiti may not be everyone’s thing but drawing this extremely impactful and consequential line in the sand between art and crime seems particularly insidious when you are aware of the real-world impact.