Friday, April 20, 2007

Good Riddance To Bansky Rubbish

I’ve had it on good authority that the Romanians have a hard time understanding our art and culture. You can hardly blame them. I seem to be the only person who thinks that Banksy is overrated. I had to stop Gabby running off this morning with a pot of white paint. She had the misguided intention of painting a large mural of my loins on the end of the Post Office. I hardly had the nerve to tell her that the wall was simply too small for a task of that size.

It did, however, get me thinking about my project for my English class. I’ve been asked to ‘write an opinion piece about two or more current events’. This is where my afternoon has gone me…

As a self-publicist, an agent provocateur, or even as somebody specialising in art parody, Banksy has no current equal, though you could perhaps make a case for Gilbert and George or any number of wittier examples found on the web. Banksy’s elevation to one of the UK's most high profile artists has just a bit of the noble savage about it. It's not far distant from the enlightenment practice of taking some poor tribesman from one newly conquered dominion and presenting him at court dressed as a gentleman. Even the cheery mateyness of the ‘Banksy’ name epitomizes so much. It’s that same game as ‘The Wife in the North’ plays with class and the north. It’s the Patty Hearst story retold to a new audience, where the rich kid hangs around the poor in order to look and feel cool. The whole thing has a patronising air about it, even before we get to the problem of people preferring a shallow fabrication to the real thing.

Quite evidently, the British media care little about understanding art. Today they report with some shock, though tinged with an oddly paradoxical delight, that a famous mural by Bansky has now been whitewashed over by council workers.

There is a thong splittingly funny moment in the piece in the form of the council’s response: ‘We recognise that there are those who view Banksy's work as legitimate art, but sadly our graffiti removal teams are staffed by professional cleaners not professional art critics.’ What makes it additionally funny is the notion that professional critics of any worth have promoted his work as genuine art. I thought Banksy’s celebrated doodles are the result of their being spotted by Angelina Jolie, that eminent critic of anything and everything.

Of course, it hardly matters if the newspapers get these things wrong. Nothing matters but readership. Certainly not facts. It doesn’t matter that Bryan Ferry studied art at University of Newcastle. It’s one of the little details ignored by the media so busy castigating him in broad strokes for having admitted to admiring the Nazi's sense of spectacle.

Ferry undoubtedly made a stupid remark. He stupidly assumed that the British tabloids would play fair. He made the remarks to a German newspaper, perhaps assuming that a more knowledgeable continental audience would understand his point. Perhaps they did as it only appear to be here in the UK that he’s held up as a Nazi sympathiser and there are calls for him to lose his M&S card. There’s no attempt to contextualise his comments, nor explain the extent to which Hitler’s regime was intimately concerned with art.

Over at The Baullieu Blog, Danvers argues that the Nazi regime oppressed the art in favour of 'sterile neo-classical works of muscular figures doing heroic things' and that Ferry's mistaken championing of Nazi projects is enough to warrant the criticism. Yet this seems to me to be an argument based on taste, a preference for (jazz, Brecht, 'modern art') and not morality. There is something about that sterile neo-classicism which Ferry apparently admires. It is to take one side in an age old debate about form and the formless. As contemptible as the regime and its methods, the Nazi master plan was wrapped up with questions of aesthetics. Nazi art and architecture is alienating in its scale, chilling in its assumptions. It rises from the absolute belief in form and reflects the Nazi certainty that Germanic archetypes are to be found in nature and history.

'Triumph of the Will', the 1934 propaganda film made by Leni Riefenstahl, currently has a rank of 7.9 on the Internet Movie Database. It is seen as one of the most important documentaries ever made. It redefined propaganda and Riefenstahl broke new ground in developing an aesthetic for cinema. Are those that followed her Nazis sympathisers too? What about George Lucas, whose Star Wars films are full of the kind of imagery pioneered by Riefenstahl?

Art reflects human passions, habits, doubts, ambitions. It is often bound up with moral judgements, but sometimes moral judgements that are wrong. Sometimes they are staggeringly wrong. Sometimes they are so wrong that no right minded person would argue otherwise. Yet their rightness or wrongness does not change their power of real art to affect its viewer. In this limited way, art transcends morality. We cannot divest ourselves from our immediate response to it. Art literally takes the breath away before we’ve had chance to intellectualise our response to it. I’d be surprised if anybody responds in that way to Banksy’s work. How many hearts have missed a beat on first seeing one of his pieces on a wall? Yet I’m sure thousands of people are still moved, often unknowingly, by art whose genesis lay in vilest era of the last century. Of course, this does not condone, in any way, the regime that allowed and in some cases encouraged this art to exist, but it does highlight that art is different to politics.

We face the same problem now that the media have linked the Virginia Tech campus murders to 'Oldboy', the Korean film that won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes a couple of years ago.

Before the events of the last few days, I had considered 'Oldboy' one of the finest films of the last decade. It’s Shakespearean in that it is one of the few modern stories I could imagine written by a sixteenth century revenge tragedian. The last half hour is as disturbingly brilliant as storytelling gets these days. Yet it’s less bloody that 'Titus Andronicus'; much less bloody than many American films whose whole premise is gore. Where most action and horror films laud the grotesque, 'Oldboy' lauds the tragedy of forbidden love. The few moments of violence play out more in the mind than they do the screen, such as the one brief scene in which the lead character eats a live squid. It’s not pleasant to watch but it’s part of the film’s culture and significant to its themes.

The media will never care to discuss this sort of thing. Art is reduced to the simple morality of good versus evil when described by the tabloids. Simple judgements overrun the complexity of the issues that still surround Cho Seung-Hui's actions. Two still images from a Korean film seem to match photographs taken by a Korean killer. One easy association that makes for big headlines.


Jan Tregeagle said...

You are of course bang on about Banksy, a man of mediocre talent and fantastic PR (my personal view is that as soon as the media/art world/middle classes take you up then you are outdated). In particualr his 'never show my face' routine is brilliant, maintaining (to steal your example) all the mysticism of a witch doctors mask whilst combining it with a faceless conformity and manufactured rebelliousness. It allows one to admire this example of the noble savage whilst maintaining a complete ignorance of its culture or life. It is in fact almost parasitic, an existence as a dog (in the sense that he works to please), in which by providing mildly risque art ( murals, how daring) and a sense of the unknown he is fed and maintined by a society that can enjoy the sanitised view he provides. Even in my day there were suerior satirists amongst the numerous 'taggers' in my school as well as those with better skills and awareness.

Similarly Ferry was beasted over something taken out of context (and I can't help wondering if he would have been so blasted if he professed admiration for Soviet architecture). Nor is its sterile neo-classics the only foundation of Nazi art. There is also Himmlers neo-medieval gothic/baroque style, modernist work (like, say, the autobahns, if you accept those as art) etc. Not to mention film and posters. (Didn't I tell you not to mention them.) Art is not removed from society and culture but one can still admire what one dislikes on principle (what else does the Wallace Collection's armoury exist for?).

And again a perfect hit on Oldboy. The two similar poses could be lifted from a dozen movies, indeed one of them was shown yesterday in that piece of excreta that masquerades for a film; 'S.W.A.T'. The only link is that it allows the media to sell more (which fundamentally in a capitalist society is its aim). The media is of course though only reacting to the public (to sell one must appeal, a lesson the Sun knows well).

In the end it comes down to us the public for buying such vapid nonsense and so continuing this vicious cycle.

Chip Dale said...

Many thanks for the comments, Jan. I did wonder how my little diatribe would be taken and I’m glad to think I’m not the only one who gets hot under my thong about this kind of thing. You've even managed to answer some of the questions I had for myself about German art. Finding a book on German art was one of my projects to set myself this week.

I also thought to ask whether Ferry would have been questioned if he'd admitted to liking Soviet propaganda. I have a copy of the Sunday Times around here somewhere which has a piece about Chinese propaganda posters which is just accepted. I didn’t have time but I think the point is exactly the problem. There are accepted unacceptables and unaccepted unacceptables.

Funnily enough, I’ve just finished watching ‘The Train’ on DVD, which is about a German officer trying to save 'decadent' French art from liberation by the Allies, and an non-art loving resistance guy trying to stop them getting to Germany. It was odd and interesting for turning everything around and asking questions about the value of art and the values of people who appreciate art.

Jan Tregeagle said...

"The Train" sounds very interesting, one to hunt up it seems.

Ms Baroque said...

Chippy, very thought-provoking essay. Ta.

A friend of a friend of mine used to go out with Banksy...

I think I'd be shy of making categorical pronouncements about whether someone "has talent" or whatever - and whatever you may think of Bannksy, he did something and made a point and changed the way people perceived certain things. I agree he's gone orf the boil a bit lately, over in Hollywood - well, "a bit" - as a London phenomenon he was a huge success.

And it is a well-known truism in art, literature, music and all other circles that "talent" is a small part of what gets a person's work out there. The other factors are numerous and include being in the right place, hitting the Zeitgeist, being canny, knowing the right people - energy, application, doggedness, self-confidence, vision, a thick skin, etc etc.

Banksy's fame - and his contribution to art - can probably be compared most usefully to that of people like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, however you think he compares in terms of achievement.

Jan, I'm not sure what you mean by either "sanitised view" or "awareness" - awareness of what, precisely?

As to a debate over the relative horribleness of the soviets and the Nazis, weighed up against their social acceptability - I can;t help thinking that if Bryan Ferry had said he was a big fan of the Politburo and loved Soviet architecture and compared himself facetiously to Stalin, everyone would have still thought he was displaying a singular lack of judgement and taste. As indeed he would have been.

Of course, lotsof people have been crying, "Bryan Ferry's a Nazi!" which has just got to be untrue. I think he probably is just a bit silly and careless. After all these years he should know the press better than that.

I'd also hazard a guess that "admiring what one dislikes on principle," i.e., negotiating the conflict in one's relationship to the artworks in question, sounds a bit sophisticated in application to Roxy Boy's remarks!

I'd posit that the media, not so much in some kind of standoff with the poublic or pandering to it, is actually made up of members of it, whose judgement is no better or worse then the other members'. The media, in other words, is not something aside from the public! It is part of it.

Challenging stuff, Chippy! Hope you're having a thong-tastic weekend.

Jan Tregeagle said...

Off I go ranting and someone always has to be the voice of reason...

Hmm, I was probably rather too harsh on the wee Banksy, particuarly when artistic talent is so subjective. But hey. As you say talent is only a small part of what gets you out there and that is probably my problem because the artistic circles I move in (i.e. the Cadgwith Arms) have none of that but have talent. I admire Banksys ability to sell himself, just not a fan of his work.

Apolagies if "sanitised view" and "awareness" were in a confusing manner or context. Me ol' fingers sometimes go faster than coherent thought. By sanitised view I meant that they could admire Banksys rebelliousness and working class origins without understanding those origins or the reason for rebellion. No grit involved etc. Awareness was I can see now very badly chosen. By it I meant a greater sense of the work as a whole, of its message, the reason behind it etc. Theres probably a good, single word term for it but it escapes my vocabulary.

Hmm, I'd disagree on your interpretation of the media in that whilst it is comprised of members of the public it is so often directed by a view of what sells (the Sun is a compelling piece of evidence in that its titles are hardly classical journalism but bring the punters in).

Jane Henry said...

Very interesting post Mr ChipenDale. Didn't I see you once in the 80s at someone's hen night?

I know nowt about art, but I think your point about acceptable unacceptables and unacceptable acceptables is a valid one.
Nobody stops going to see Wagner despite concerns about his links with the Nazis. And didn't Stalin kill more people in the Gulags then Hitler did in the concentration camps? (Both equally bad in my view, but we tend to hear more about one then t'other)

rilly super said...

Jane dear, Richard Wagner died five years before young Adolf was even a glint in his mother's eye, although it's true that Cosima did do a bit of a Brian Ferry in the twenties, and we're not talking cover of jealous guy here either.

Chip darling, I feel some kind of health warning is called for along the lines of 'Warning! intellectual content. Anyone visiting before 11.30am does so at their own risk of not having woken up properly yet and thinking they have fallen asleep in front of newsnight review again'. Who is this banksy fellow anyway?

Chip Dale said...

Jan: Yes, 'The Train' is one of Burt Lancaster best films. It has a great performance by Paul Scofield.

Ms. Baroque: I've just finished typing up a response to something you say but it's too long to post here so I'll make it a main post.

Jane: I think the Wagner point is a good one. Woody Allen always filled me with a mild paranoid about seeing Wagner. Even if it doesn't stop people seeing him, there has to be a slight niggle at the back of their minds when they do.

Rilly: I'll try to come up with a intellectual content badge I'll put on these posts. That way, people will be able to ignore them as the self-satisfied rants they really are. I didn't know that about Wagner's wife.

Jane Henry said...

rilly super,

sorry the point I was making about Wagner was the Nazis embraced his music and he is often associated with them, but that doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't like the Nibelung. Which I do. And I am most decidedly not a Nazi

Chip Dale said...

Nothing you said could have been interpreted any other way, Jane. Or, at least, I didn't interpret it like that.

You're so right that Wager has unfortunate connotations, which came about after his death, yet continually make him a figure of hate, to some, or at least mild concern to many.