“Call this art?” Jonathan Jones of The Guardian critically examines the art of star stencil artist Banksy. (The Guardian Weekly, Thursday 5 July 2007 ) Jonathan Jones tries to appreciate Banksy but concludes, “after wallowing in this stuff for a while, I almost found myself hating Banksy’s fans. But actually it’s fine to like him, so long as you don’t kid yourself that this is ‘art’.”
Graffiti style is increasing entering the commercial design world, as well as, the fine art world. It is a graphic style with youth and rebel overtones that make it very suitable for commercial uses. Street art is more of a graphic style than fine art; most street artists, if they do have any formal training are from a graphics art background than a fine art background. The difference between graphics arts and fine arts is most apparent over the issues of original creativity and the meaning of the work. Graphics arts are more concerned with successful communication and appeal than original creations or artistic depth. As Jonathan Jones writes “The easy humour that makes his (Cartrain) work superficially likable removes from it any hope of being made or poetic.”
To Jonathan Jones street art is “background” art, “as in background music: like all graffiti, his is essentially an accompaniment to other activities.” Unfortunately this is poor argument because ‘background music’ is still music and therefore so is ‘background art’. To take Jones’s argument further it appears he would conclude architecture is not art as it is “essentially an accompaniment for other activities.” Background or foreground is context and not an inherent quality of the work in consideration.
Jones is on firmer ground when he examines the inherent quality of Banksy’s work. He complains that Banksy’s conceptual humour works are “one-dimensional and soulless”. That his art is conservative in its use of trompe l’oeil and “superficially likeable.” However by this critique it appears that Jones has conceded that Banksy’s work is art and is now arguing that it is bad art.
“Whereas Basquiat’s had the dirt and mystery of true graffiti” Jones writes, “Banksy is merely one of the lads, having a laugh.” One of the motivations for Jones’s criticism is that Banksy, like other street artists, is following Basquiat off the street into the art galleries and expensive collections. That same year London at auction house Bonhams Banksy’s piece, “Avon and Somerset Constabulary”, which depicted two policemen looking through binoculars, sold for £96,000 (Australian $216, 901) and “Untitled, Rat and Sword” went for £64,800 (Australian $146,426). Jones believes that the joke is on the collectors who buy Banksy’s art and Bristol council who are now preserving Banksy’s work on their streets. I wonder who will be laughing last, Jones now or the collectors?
I don’t know a lot about Banksy’s art so I am not going to defend it from all of Jones’s critique; the quality of Banksy’s art is certainly debatable. Instead I want to largely draw attention to Jones as a critic. This was the first article that I have read that is actually critical of a street artist rather than describing the social phenomena. It is important for street art to have serious criticism to expand the discourse about street art, even if Jones doesn’t think that it is art.
Jones continues his attacks on Banksy and street art in his blog. “The reason I don’t like street art is that it’s not aesthetic, it’s social. To celebrate it is to celebrate ignorance, aggression, all the things our society excels at. For middle class people to find artistic excitement in something that scares old people on estates is a bit sick.” Jones (Wed. 15 April 2009)