Off the Wall: why is Banksy so popular?

I went to see the big Banksy show at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery last week. I say I went to see it – but I didn’t: the queue was enormous, occupying a whole side street, and I took one look at the length of it and decided that I really didn’t want to wait in the squally showers to see his work – especially since I could just wander around the streets of Bristol and see some wonderful work by Banksy and other street artists, too.

I had been warned: both the friends I was visiting and the musuem’s website told of hour-long queues. But I was still very surprised.

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I go to quite a few art exhibitions – a couple a month, I’d guess – by many world famous artists (and many unknowns, too). I often go to the big blockbuster shows – the big names. And I haven’t seen queues like that to get into the Banksy show before – well, not in the last thirty years that I can recall, anyway.

I was trying to understand why Banksy was so popular – way, way more than any other artist whose work I have tried see. I can’t imagine the Jeff Koon’s show at the Serpentine has queues around the park.

Perhaps Banksy’s popularity isn’t so hard to understand – I wanted to see his work, too. But that it should be so popular is surprising. Those queueing for the show looked like any other exhibition audience – perhaps a little younger, but not much. They didn’t look like they’d been out all night stencilling walls. (Though since I’ve never been out all night stencilling walls myself, I can’t really say what street artsists look like…)

What got me along to the show (if not into it) is the humour and iconoclastic nature of the painting: subverting one’s expectations, attacking the establishment. But there must be a lot of artists who play similar tricks.

But what Banksy does is very much street art: the idea of caging his graffiti and stencilled pieces in an exhibition seems a bit odd. And queueing for the privilege when one can walk along nearby streets and his and others’ work in situ seems positively perverse.

Bristol still has many murals by Banksy and many other artists: they are local landmarks, and what once might have been treated with disdain and scrubbing brushes now add to civic prestige. (I have been told several of Banksy’s pictures in Bristol are now subject to preservation orders.) In a short walk through BS2 I saw many graffiti’ed walls of high quality, at least some of which were attirbuted to Banksy.

Although apparently Banksy, a Bristol Rovers fan, recently made some unwelcome comments about Bristol City football club – whose fans have daubed some of Banksy’s street art with blue, their club’s colour.

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[Edit: the panda and the man hanging from the window are both by Banksy. The silhouette of children is apparently by an artist who goes by the name “Fake”. I don’t know who painted the others. The spaceman is my favourite – especially since today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing!]

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7 thoughts on “Off the Wall: why is Banksy so popular?

  1. finiteattentionspan

    Oh, the wave one is sublime.

    Agree with your mixed feelings about a closed exhibition of something so defiantly free-range. On the other hand, I guess it’s what academics call an esteem indicator …

    Reply
    1. Patrick Post author

      After frantically looking up esteem indicators (and surprisingly they barely get a mention in Wikipedia!), my understanding is that the exhibition would be attractive to Banksy an an esteem indicator (especially since he is anonymous – and hence can’t have people telling him personally they like his work), but I’m not sure that this would explain the large number of people willing to stand for an hour to see the exhibition.

      “Free-range art” is a wonderful concept! (Though I’m now having queasy thoughts about “organic art” – maybe that would be used to describe Chris Ofili’s elephant dung pictures?)

      I’m also stuck about the semantics of this – “graffiti” seems way too derogatory, “street art” somehow pompous, as if I were a dealer trying to hype the work.

      Only the teddy bear and the man hanging from the window are definitely by Banksy – the silhouette of kids is, I’ve been told, by a Dutch artist known as “Fake”, and I’ve no idea who painted the others. Beneath the wave was a panda:

      Reply
        1. finiteattentionspan

          I wondered whether I was supposed to be seeing a picture! I love it. Wave tentacles, panda, the works. (It’s also a stupendous colour of red …)

          Reply
  2. finiteattentionspan

    I’m not sure that this would explain the large number of people willing to stand for an hour to see the exhibition.

    No, you’re quite right. But maybe these are people who don’t know where to go to see their Banksy in the wild, or don’t have time … ?

    (Though I’m now having queasy thoughts about “organic art” – maybe that would be used to describe Chris Ofili’s elephant dung pictures?)

    Hee.

    I think ‘street art’ is an okay, um, tag. Yeah, ‘Graffiti’ definitely has connotations of being unwanted or lacking artistic merit.

    Reply
  3. Tony Herniman

    “Although apparently Banksy, a Bristol Rovers fan, recently made some unwelcome comments about Bristol City football club – whose fans have daubed some of Banksy’s street art with blue, their club’s colour.”

    ?

    Just to clarify/correct: Banksy’s a City fan, City play in red, he made derogatory comments about Rovers (who play in blue) and the next day this art was vandalised in blue.

    Your facts are correct, then. If you reverse them.

    Reply

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