Street Art Critic

“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)


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

3 responses to “Street Art Critic

  • Alison

    Must admit I find Jones’s argument pretty specious: it collapses different varieties of activity/image into one category of ‘street art’. The ‘middle class’ that he mocks aren’t taking pleasure in the things that frighten older people on council estates: the middle class like stencils and clever street art (of which Banksy is one example), whereas what older people on council estates are frightened of is – of course – tags. You don’t find many stencils on housing estates.

    But it’s not just the ‘middle class’ who are celebrating street art, especially in the UK, where Jones is based: street art may be praised by the middle class (who like seeing stencils on street walls) but it’s purchased by the wealthy and by speculators. You’ve got to be a lot more than middle class to afford the kind of prices that artworks are fetching at Bonhams (not just for Banksy’s work but for a huge range of street artists and graffiti artists: Futura, Rough, Faile, Obey Giant etc).

    It’s also not just the middle class who like street art, especially Banksy’s work. In Bristol, the council are asking for people to vote on whether some of Banksy’s work should be cleaned or retained: at present, over 85% of votes have been in favour of its retention. No doubt Jones would claim it’s only the middle class who are voting, but I think that’s statistically unlikely!

    So, yes, it’s good to see an art critic engaging with the merits of street artworks. But the debate needs to be a lot more nuanced than the arguments Jones is producing! What I’d like to see is an art critic in a national newspaper take street artworks seriously in terms of their placement, skill, impact, and aesthetic.

  • Mr Fish

    Just caught this article. As an `outsider` artist, and one working in the street, I`m aware of Mr Jone`s views. However, to be an artist one doesnt need to be accepted by the establishment, just by one`s peers and (hopefully) benefactors.
    Please look at my site. Is it possible to start a public dialogue in some way?

    • Mark Holsworth

      Hi Mr Fish, welcome to the public dialogue and thanks for the comment. I did visit your site and would recommend a visit (that’s why I edited your comment to include the URL) for anyone who enjoys good street sculpture. The visual arts, personal music and literature can be successful in a one to one relationship between artist and viewer/listener/reader. The arts that require large organizations, like cinema, opera, ballet, theatre, concert music, etc. can only exist with support from the establishment and in a one to many relationship between the artist and audience. A one to one relationship between artist and viewer allows the artist to be more radical, more personal, more eccentric because only one person is needed to appreciate/understand/ respond to it for it to be successful.

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