Banksy: The Last Romantic
Susana Gómez Laín
They seek him here, they seek him there
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere
Is he in heaven or is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel
Baroness Emmuska Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel
With him/her/them (we don’t know yet), in a context of pandemia, scandal arrived at the Círculo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Circle) in Madrid out of the unauthorised exhibition Banksy, the Street is a Canvas.
I don’t know if it is a pity or luck that whenever an exhibition of this artist comes to the town, like a circus parade, the result is more about the expectation that the artist causes than the show. The works themselves are secondary.
The reason is that this halo of mystery around Banksy’s identity, the sneaky working method crossing the red line between legality and crime, appeals to our most recondite emotional needs: for adventure, for enigmas and to fulfil a romantic void in our dull, daily routines. And we love it. Like a reborn Scarlet Pimpernel, saving us from the twin blades of commercialization and gentrification of art. Or like a new Robin Hood stealing the right of owning art from the rich to bring it to the poor. At least, that is what we want to believe.
The inauguration of the event predictably became a dialectic war among the cultural forces in favour or against the artist. One accused the Circle of holding a standard exhibition to make money (the entrance cost €16 even for me with a press pass) from the works of an artist whose motto is to make art available for everyone at no cost. But is this the true intention or is it just a strategy to mark a difference from others and be original, a rebel or a kind of anarchist in the contemporary art realm?
From a legal point of view, this accusation is for children. Nobody can profit from others’ intellectual or artistic works without his authorisation. At least, not in occidental cultures, rarely in others. This cannot be true. They could be sued right away and asked to take precautionary measures by closing the premises. If they remain open, it is because Banksy or the organization behind him permits it. It is part of the show, of the game. I don’t understand how people with a reasonable educational level can fall in that rudimentary trap. Maybe out of fascination or infatuation. Anyway, self-deception can be a good therapy sometimes.
A very important achievement I grant to him: he has taken to the top the meaning of conceptual art because whenever you look at his works, you only think that what matters is the idea, the message behind the work. You don’t look for aesthetics, you don’t search for beauty, composition, coherence, or a new style; you don’t long for a Stendhal syndrome; you just look for headlines, you just see the concept behind it, social, political or just human, to see if it fits or not with your own opinions, putting aside other traditional artistic considerations. What fits your discourse, you like, what doesn’t, you don’t. That simple. You don’t judge the work, you judge the idea. That is really new.
Like Hemingway did with the shortest tale ever: For sale: baby shoes, never worn, Banksy, in most of his work, leaves an almost blank canvas for us to paint. That can be the reason why Girl with a Balloon is preferred by the British public to Turner’s masterpieces. The first is affordable, makes us all a bit artists and even dares us mentally to give a final touch to the piece and be transported with the balloons to a cloud of nostalgic memories of happier times in this world. The latter makes us small and clumsy and sends us out of this world to talk directly with Gods, and that can be too painful or too intense for some. This awkward choice derives from the evolution of thinking in the last centuries, from the sacred to the profane. Or at least, I want to think so.
Volume 35 no 4 March/April 2021