Criticisms are frequently attributed to Banksy, perhaps harshly, along the lines of lack of originality and the simplicity of his social satire. For me, these are a wide of the mark. The power of his art lies not so much within its message but within its execution. His play on the boundaries between artist and vandal, the illegal and pseudonymous nature of his work, the daring and the speed, the play between legitimate, iconic art and defacement, and the fact he doesn’t take himself too seriously is what endears him to the masses.
Perhaps more recently you could call him a victim of his own success; his works sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds in the major auction houses, a point that led him to paint an auction house scene with people bidding on a picture that said “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit”. He has undertaken commissions in a traditional artist-patron sense and staged traditional gallery-based exhibitions. You can’t help but feel that the sting of his work is subdued by this success and worldwide popularity, to the point where what he does isn’t particularly rebellious, and not so much representative of the street where his art was born, but more of artistic institution.
So what of his latest work? Cardinal Sin is a sculpture rather than a spray-canned mural, a replica stone portrait bust of an 18th century priest to be precise. Banksy has sawn off the replica’s face and replaced it with ceramic tiles to give it a quite innovative, pixelated appearance associated with photos of anonymous criminals seen in the media. It’s supposed to highlight the sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church and illustrate the true meaning of Christmas and Christianity, which according to the artist is all about “the lies, the corruption, [and] the abuse.”
So there’s nothing particularly new in the point he’s making, Catholic priests have been ridiculed in satire for ages, but installed it in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, it marks a move away from his preferred medium of city building exteriors, to inside the traditional art gallery. And actually, I think he has managed to keep the same essence of his work despite this transition. The meaning, as with all works by Banksy, revolves around social satire in the same, not particularly complicated vein, as Private Eye or Viz, pointing out the hypocrisies of the world in a humorous way.
Echoing his graffiti, Cardinal Sin is about defacement (literally in this case) and the effect it can have by interrupting the flow of normality to make you think differently. And by placing his work in a gallery, alongside the paintings of 17th century Old Masters like Rubens, Poussin and Murillo, it makes this defacement statement all the more obvious. It creates a nice little juxtaposition as he distances himself from the Old Masters rather than equates himself with them, but by the very nature of being in the gallery, acknowledges his position in the institution of art.
Overall I admire what Banksy has done here. Though not overly complex, it has more to say than many of his other works, and there still exists a charm in his not taking himself too seriously. There’s enjoyment in this for everyone whether you care about art or not.*
*Except Catholic priests.
By Edward Lines