Sunday Herald: Banksy & the Balloon Girl

Elusive street artist Banksy's work is often seen as a small but meaningful act of protest in a sea of howls and squeals, writes Giridhar Khasnis

Some of Banksy's works
Highlights: 
Banksy, the creator of balloon girl’s image, has, for decades, been a household name in his country. Even though he remained anonymous and all his work are considered illegal, he has acquired the aura of celebrity.

Last year, an art audit commissioned to mark the launch of the TV The Frame threw up some interesting results. The survey had asked 2,000 British adults to vote for their favourite artworks from a shortlist of 20 drawn up by a panel of arts editors and writers.

Elusive street artist Banksy’s image of a little girl letting go of her heart-shaped red balloon topped the list and was declared the best-loved work of art in the UK. Originally painted in 2002 on a grimy wall of a printing shop in Shoreditch, an inner city district in the East End of London, the stencil mural was removed in 2014 from the wall to be exhibited and then sold.

Banksy’s work (with 44% votes) pushed John Constable’s The Hay Wain, a much-loved rural landscape painted in 1821, to second (33%) spot; and Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler (1992), showing two young dancing lovers, to the third.

Other worthies in the list of 20 included 1838 oil painting by JMW Turner, The Fighting Temeraire (No. 4); Antony Gormley’s 20-metre-high steel sculpture The Angel of the North (No. 5); environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy’s Balanced Rock Misty (No.13); David Hockney’s large pop-art painting A Bigger Splash (No. 14); Anish Kapoor’s 114.5-metre-high sculpture and observation tower built as part of 2012 London Olympic Games, ArcelorMittal Orbit (No.16); and Henry Moore’s ground-breaking modernist sculpture called Reclining Figure (No.19).

Anonymous artist

Banksy, the creator of balloon girl’s image, has, for decades, been a household name in his country. Even though he remained anonymous and all his work are considered illegal, he has acquired the aura of celebrity. Called by several names such as agent provocateur, propagandist, arch-prankster and public-space japester, the elusive graffiti/street artist has been a central figure in British art.

In 2007, he was voted an ‘arts hero’ in a poll of 18- to 25-year-olds; he was third, just behind Walt Disney and Peter Kay, but ahead of the great Leonardo da Vinci! In the same year, the New Yorker magazine dedicated a seven-page feature to him.

In 2010, the subversive and provocative artist who employs a unique stencilling technique, directed a film called Exit through the Gift Shop, narrating the story of a French immigrant in Los Angeles, and his obsession with street art. It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was later screened at the Berlin Film Festival. The film received enthusiastic critical reviews and was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary.

Banksy’s background and upbringing have been a subject of hearsay and speculation. It is generally believed that he hailed from Bristol and began spray-painting trains and walls as a young man in the early 1990s. Rising from obscurity to become the world’s best-known graffiti artist and still keeping his identity secret must not have been easy. Today, his public murals, which regularly mock socio-political events, and poke fun of wealthy corporations, are easily recognisable thanks to a near-perfect combination of form, content and impeccable timing. They are known to appear mysteriously and unexpectedly in notable as well as unremarkable places, causing great interest and curiosity among critics and the general public.

Banksy has a large contingent of admirers and followers who feel that his work “is a wonderful subversion, and remains a small act of protest in a sea of meaningless semiology, pointlessly shouted and hurled at you.” One of his fans writes that Banksy’s subversions offer glimmers of hope “in rousing our larger slumber, rather than electro-shocking or scaremongering into wakefulness.”

Film critic Peter Bradshaw, reviewing Banksy’s documentary,had this to say: “Perhaps the point of Banksy’s art is that it inhales the wild spirit of forgery: his work makes free with brand identities and the symbols of authority, it replicates them, debunks and devalues them; it is a form of benign subversion. And he could be an important artist or just a silly fad – either way, in the street and with this film (Exit Through The Gift Shop), he’s providing pleasure while he lasts.”

Not without detractors

Banksy’s work has attracted international attention over the years and is not immune from personal attacks and criticism. Angry observers have felt that he is no more than a common criminal defacing public property with graffiti, and that he should be arrested for criminal damage. “He has no more merit than other vandals who spray their tags on walls, under bridges, and on railway carriages. Voting Banksy to top place reflects the cheapening of society and the distorted values of the Twitter mob.” Some others have gone further: “He is a fraud and his work is trite… We’re all a bit tired of Banksy’s middle-class revolutionary shtick.”

Jonathan Jones is one among several eminent art critics who have voiced their concern about Banksy’s rising popularity. Writing for The Guardian in July 2017 (soon after the survey), Jones observed how the very lack of art in Banksy’s art is what makes it popular. “This is what really scares and depresses me of Banksy… 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 the majority taste is often dead wrong. Under its fake radicalism, Banksy’s Girl With Balloon is the kind of sentimental tosh our great grandfathers too would have voted as Britain’s best-loved.”

Banksy does not seem to be distracted by all the hype and hoopla; he might even be enjoying all the buzz that surrounds him and his art. In 2005, at an exhibition of his work in London, he audaciously released 200 live rats in the gallery (rat, one knows, is one of his favourites and oft-repeated mascots). His works have not only given him a celebrity status but also been much sought out by collectors. In an auction in 2008, his Keep It Spotless (executed in spray paint and household gloss on canvas) was sold for $1.8m; that’s just over £1 million! 

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Sunday Herald: Banksy & the Balloon Girl

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