New York City Artist Jeremy Penn Answers the Question "Who is Banksy?"
What is Art, exactly? It’s the question that has long been hanging off the lips of many an art critic for centuries. From the initially ridiculed Impressionists to Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, artists historically have always sought to challenge the accepted view of what Art is, preferring instead to explore what Art has the potential to be, and just how far the limits and boundaries can be tested.
For those unfamiliar with the man (or at least, who we think is a man; as his identity is still shrouded in mystery) Banksy is a graffiti artist. Hailing from Bristol in the South of England, his artistic career began (and still is) on the streets; anonymously painting the buildings, doorways and tunnels that surrounded him with graffiti images that were often political, frequently tongue-in-cheek and always cause for ferocious debate.
Art Critic Jerry Saltz, himself not one of Banksy’s biggest fans, suggests that a major part of the Banksy appeal is the very fact of his anonymity, stating his opinion “That his identity is secret only lends an allure of the forbidden” (www.vulture.com, 21.10.2013) Perhaps there is an element of truth to this statement. Is part of the reason why we are all so captivated by this street artist down to the fact that we simply have no idea who he is? After all, there is something wonderfully mysterious about the idea of such a notorious artist being able to move unseen through crowds, creating his work in public, with risk of being spotted at any point, yet still managing to remain an enigma.
For me personally, however, it goes beyond this. I relish the concept of a man being invisible, yet so completely, so undeniably and potently in full view of the world. A man whom no-one has ever heard speak, but whose words and images resonate with millions across the world, in deafening volumes. He is a man who is capable of capturing a controversial argument and condensing it down into one simple graphic image; whether it’s the issue of homosexuality with his powerful image of two policemen locked in an embrace, or the recent image that appeared in NY of a business man quite literally severing his own neck with a vivid red line, marking the rise and fall of the stock market. Powerful images indeed, and clearly designed to arouse thought and inspire debate.
Perhaps just as fascinating is Banksy’s isolation. In the history of Art, many artists have stood famously alone, isolated from the society that surrounds them, shunned by all but a few. Just as Eduard Manet was spurned by the contemporaries who mocked his work as ‘impressionist’ in form, Banksy seems to be rejected by the underground world of the graffiti artist, with many of his fellow British graffitists (notably King Robbo) openly deriding his work, and his role as a media darling. Robbo, in a recent interview, states that Banksy is “not radical he’s just a toy with a PR team.” Comments such as this just serve to add to the mystery of the man. Who is Banksy? Is King Robbo correct in his assertion that Banksy is merely a showman with a lust for drumming up publicity, or is it the case that Banksy is a revolutionary, using the medium of graffiti to speak loudly and insistently to the masses?
Whatever your thoughts, it cannot be denied that there is something endlessly alluring about an artist who can create such controversy and such ceaseless conversation. Is he an artist? Does he have the right to call himself such, given that even ‘his own kind’ have denounced him as little more than a performer for the media? In my personal opinion, I believe that an intrinsic aspect of ‘Art’ is the power to create emotion; the power to challenge perceptions and to resist imposed boundaries. And I think it is fair to assert that Banksy’s works achieve this.