Thursday, January 31, 2008

'BANKSY'S IDEAS HAVE THE VALUE OF A JOKE' by Matthew Collings & "ART ATTACK" by Peter Kennard

January 28, 2008


The respect given to 'street art' is a measure of
how puerile and idiotic contemporary art has

Matthew Collings

Do you like adolescent entertainment? Do you have
the mentality of a teenager? Do you find Cézanne
a bit overrated? If the answer is yes, yes and
yes, then I don't know what to do with you. You
are a childish philistine literalist. Get down to
Bonhams (one of the world's oldest and largest
auctioneers of fine art and antiques) next
Tuesday for their first-ever dedicated sale of
"street art" - this is the experience for you.

"Street art" means graffiti, comics-style stuff,
spray-paint art, flyposting - the art of groovy
youth. The stars of the street-art sale will
include Banksy, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel
Basquiat, Antony Micallef, Adam Neate, Faile,
Paul Insect, Space Invader, Swoon, D*Face and
Shepard Fairey.

Basquiat, who died of an overdose in 1988, was
funny and witty, and he had a great sense of
bitter irony about black cultural history: he
shared this sensibility with many people. But he
was a great mark-maker, an arranger of forms, he
could make surfaces breath and colours sing, and
all this made him extremely rare. As an artist
Haring (who died of an Aids-related illness three
years after Basquiat) was nothing like in
Basquiat's league: he had commercial appeal but
was too visually repetitive and sterile to be
significant beyond his own brief moment.
Basquiat's shining light shows up the visual
boredom of the rest of the "street art" crew -
they are funny and punky, sure, but, well, who

Gareth Williams, the urban-art specialist at
Bonhams, says: "By transposing their images from
street wall to canvas, urban artists are now
creating a permanent legacy without compromising
the vitality of their art." Poor Williams - how
giddy and weightless life must be for him, to be
in the business of using words without having any
interest in what they mean.

"Vitality" is what Matisse or Goya has, or
Islamic mosaics, or Greek statues, or abstract
paintings by Jackson Pollock - all that old
obscure stuff. Vitality in art is a rare quality,
it means life - you see it and you feel life is
worth living. It goes with originality and
surprise, a mixture of the fresh and the eternal.
It's found throughout the history of art. It's
the opposite of convention and routine. The point
about street art is that it has to conform to
street-art convention. It has to be a routine. It
has to express the personality of a stoner,
grinning, funny and kidlike.

What can you get at the auction? You can be the
owner of Banksy's Laugh Now, in stencil paint on
canvas, for only £40,000. It shows a chimp with a
sign round its neck that reads: "You can laugh
but one day we'll be in charge." What would you
really be buying? A status symbol - the work has
no value as art. But owning it would make you
modern and clever. Or stupid. It's a fine line.

A work by Banksy sold at auction for £288,000
last April. He is collected by Damien Hirst, who
we know is incredibly wealthy - but so what?
Hirst's paintings of his son being born cost £1
million each and visually they are junk. They are
only valuable because of a market consensus, not
because they connect to anything important. Most
of life is made up of trivia, and there's nothing
wrong with celebrating it. But it's something
else again to revere it as if it's the pyramids;
there's something sick about that.

"Street art" is adolescent. With the exception of
Basquiat, the artists whose work is on sale at
Bonhams next week are talented people in that
area, but the area itself is of absolutely no
interest unless you've got an arrested mentality.
Its rise as something to take seriously says
something about the weird state of art now. The
core of art today is satire and gags and
attention-getting stunts. As a society we all
kind of know this but somehow we also accept that
it's a social faux pasever to mention it. Banksy
being considered a "conceptual artist" is only a
measure of how banal and feeble the "concepts" of
contemporary art are, and an indication of art's
slide into all-out philistinism. To appear
tuned-in we now have to pretend that a literal
crack in the floor at Tate Modern means global
unease (the latest commission by Tate Modern in
its annual Unilever series), that a lot of real
people standing on a marble plinth means
"humanity" (Anthony Gormley's proposal for a new
work on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square)
and that Marc Quinn's new sculptures at White
Cube of foetuses are "influenced by Michelangelo".

Banksy's ideas only have the value of a joke.
What is an idea in real or high art? This is a
puzzle for Williams, Bonhams press-release
writer, but also apparently a puzzle for the
guardians and spokespersons of culture now. When
contemporary-art explainers are asked on to Radio
4's Front Row or BBC Two's Late Review to enthuse
about new art shows, the hosts never challenge
the rubbish they spout. Mark Lawson doesn't know
about art, but also he doesn't want to seem
offensive. And yet he does know about ideas, and
he must see that Anthony Gormley doesn't really
have them in any important sense - Lawson starts
reasonably enough, not wanting to appear gauche
in a conversation about art, but he ends up
actually believing the bullshit.

The result is a culture subscribed to by many,
many intelligent people, in which another level
of meaning operates where art is concerned than
the level that operates for, say, books by J. M.
Coetzee. With the former we accept an unaesthetic
experience and an explanation that is shallow
where it is not incomprehensible. And with the
latter we're in awe of wit, learning, craft,
knowledge and surprise; we're amazed that the
depths of what it feels like to be a suffering,
feeling, joyful, thinking human being right now
can be captured by art. With Banksy (as with
Hirst) we're just amazed that he could be so rich.

Laughing all the way to the Banksy

Online bidding for a wall painted on by Banksy
closed earlier this month with a final price of
£208,100, after 69 bids. The owner of the wall,
Luti Fagbenle, estimated that the cost of removal
of the piece would be around £5,000, to be paid
by the buyer.

In October 2006, a Banksy painting used for the
cover of Blur's Think Tank album - of an
embracing couple dressed in deep-sea diving gear
- sold at Bonhams for £62,400, ten times the
original estimate.

The previous month, the graffiti artist staged a
show in Los Angeles, at which Angelina Jolie is
reported to have spent £200,000 on his work.
Christina Aguilera is another celebrity fan - she
visited Banksy's Soho gallery during a trip to
London in April 2006 and paid £25,000 for three
works, including one depicting Queen Victoria in
a lesbian clinch with a prostitute.

Bombing Middle England, a painting of pensioners
playing bowls with bombs, fetched a whopping
£102,000, more than double its highest estimated
price of £50,000, at Sotheby's in February last

In the same sale, Banksy's Balloon Girl sold for
£37,200, and another work called Bomb Hugger for

© Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.



Peter Kennard

Published 17 January 2008

Banksy attracts the press attention, but around
him is an increasingly influential movement of
political artists operating outside the mainstream

The phone rings; the number is withheld. It's
Banksy. He wants to know whether I can go to
Bethlehem over Christmas. He is putting on an
exhibition, bringing together like-minded artists
from all over the world to raise awareness of the
situation in Palestine. Like the annual guerrilla
art shows that have taken place in London for the
past six years, it will be called "Santa's
Ghetto". Two weeks later, I find myself involved
in an experience that transforms my ideas about
what artists can do in the face of oppression.

We are living through an exciting time for
political art. I have been an artist for 40
years, and my work has always focused on
political and social issues. In the 1970s, I
started making photo montage work, drawing on
imagery from the Vietnam War and the row over
nuclear armaments (a retrospective opens at the
Pump House Gallery this month). Since the
build-up to the Iraq War in 2002, I have been
collaborating with a younger artist, Cat Picton
Phillipps, developing new techniques and using
digital technology to expose the lies that led to
the invasion and the subsequent humanitarian

Over this period, our work has become linked to a
group of young artists who work outside the
official art world. Most of them started out
painting graffiti on walls. The central figure in
this group is Banksy, but although he attracts
most of the press coverage, he is surrounded by a
growing band of talented, politically committed
artists. Our associates come from Spain and
Italy, the US, Britain and Palestine. Since the
era of the Bush/Blair war in Iraq, this movement
has become increasingly politicised, just as my
generation was politicised by the war in Vietnam.
These are artists who want to connect with the
real world, rather than work for the market,
which has more of a stranglehold on art than
ever. They combine creativity with protest,
insisting that art should be more than the icing
on the cake for the super-rich.

We arrived in Bethlehem with four fellow artists:
Blu, an Italian who has painted on walls from
Bologna to Buenos Aires; Sam3, from Spain; the
long-standing Banksy collaborator Paul Insect,
from Britain; and Gee Vaucher, another Brit and
the only other artist of my generation. The rest
are all in their thirties and come from
street-art backgrounds. All of them are well
informed about the Middle East and came to
Bethlehem to show their solidarity with the

Banksy had been to the West Bank a number of
times to paint on the Separation Wall. He knows
and understands the situation and had a team of
focused, sussed people working with him. They
found a disused fast-food joint in Manger Square
and managed to rent it. The idea was to show a
combination of western and Palestinian artists.
The art was available to buy on site only, so if
you wanted to get hold of the latest Banksy or
any of the other artworks, you would have to
travel to Bethlehem to place a bid. This was
important, because Bethlehem is being starved of
its tourist trade as visitors are bussed in to
see the Church of the Nativity and bussed out an
hour later back to Israel. All proceeds from the
sale, which exceeded $1m, went to local charities.

For our contribution, Cat and I decided to print
a dollar bill across 18 sheets of the Jerusalem
Post, ripped through to expose images of
pre-Naqba Palestine. The pictures show the
richness of Palestine's history and the diversity
of its culture - a sobering antidote to the
stereotype of a violent, irrational people that
we so often see on the news. We wanted to make
the work in Bethlehem because taking finished
pieces over would be difficult, given Israel's
heavy and ever-changing restrictions on what and
who can travel in to the Palestinian territories.

We teamed up with a group of Palestinians, who
helped to get hold of materials and sort out
logistics. They also gave us all a window on life
in the West Bank, with looming Israeli
settlements and endless checkpoints. Every night
we would pile into a kebab restaurant, where we
would drink and dance, arguing over and
discussing that day's work. One night over
dinner, the Palestinians recounted how they had
been held and tortured by the Israeli authorities
while they were still in their mid-teens. It was
extraordinary how welcoming they were to this
motley band of artists. All the privations and
restrictions have only increased the
Palestinians' resilience and their desire to
communicate with the outside world.

Through these friends we found a commercial
printing house in Hebron, which got involved in
sorting out our highly unconventional printing
needs. This involved printing a giant dollar
across many sheets of newspaper and also making a
giant print to plaster on the Separation Wall.
The printers immediately committed their time and
energy to the project, and ended up printing for
Banksy and the other artists.

Through this process of making, the people of
Bethlehem became involved in what the work was
saying. After we pasted our picture on the wall,
we went for tea in the cafe opposite. The cafe
owner, whose business has been destroyed by the
wall, told us he appreciated the statement we had
plastered on to the cement that he has to stare
at every day of his life.

Sticking up a poster or painting the Separation
Wall in the West Bank might sound
inconsequential, but these are highly practical
ways to help, in contrast to the intellectual
interventions prevalent in much contemporary art.
They contribute to a town and a people that are
having their lifeblood strangled out of them.

In this context, it is important that the work
communicates directly to the Palestinian people.
While there has been a move to take on
contemporary issues in a direct way in the
theatre, in visual art the idea still holds that
if you have something to say about the world, you
have to hide it behind theory and obscurity. It
sometimes seems that Britain's art colleges turn
out experts in camouflage, rather than fine art.

The pressure of world events is so great that it
is increasingly difficult to sustain the idea of
art for art's sake. Radical art and politics
converge in times of crisis, and that is
happening now. I know, from my experience as a
tutor at the Royal College of Art and at the
University of the Arts in London, that the
ironies of the Nineties YBA movement are now a
thing of the past. Many art students and young
artists are searching for ways to make a direct
connection between their awareness of how things
are in the world and their own art practice.

This involves thinking about not only the form of
the art itself, but also the process of making.
There are many collaborations taking place across
media and disciplines, and artists are looking
for new methods of distribution.

Unlike in my youth, there is no organised "left"
into which artists can slot, but there is a
concrete wall, 425 miles long, and we can turn it
into an international canvas of dissent.

"Uncertified Documents", a retrospective of work
by Peter Kennard, opens at the Pump House
Gallery, Battersea Park, London SW11 on 30

Four to watch

Blu burst on to the public-art scene after the
success of his contributions to the "Urban Edge"
show in Milan in 2005. His reputation is built on
expansive, surreal, often aggressive wall and
pavement murals. Though renowned for his
playfulness, acclaimed pieces from 2007, such as
Fantoche in Switzerland, Letter A in New York and
Reclaim Your City in Berlin, have a more macabre

Suleiman Mansour co-founded al-Wasiti Art Centre
in east Jerusalem, which he now directs, and went
on to lead the New Vision artists' group, which
proved influential during the first intifada. A
pioneer of resistance art, Mansour makes work
that revolves around the Palestinian struggle. He
was head of the League of Palestinian Artists for
four years, and won the Nile Award at the 1998
Cairo Biennale as well as the Palestine Prize for
the Visual Arts the same year. He is famous for
using locally sourced materials, such as mud and
henna, in his pieces.

Sam3 (Samuel Marín) comes from Granada in
southern Spain, where his ephemeral long, black
silhouettes haunt the cityscape. Famous works
include his 12 Shadows project for AlterArte and
the iconic Erase Yourself, a silent protest
against the civic legal authorities for removing
graffiti in Barcelona.

Paul Insect is a London-based ex-designer whose
pioneering of "steampunk", a mixture of Gothic
Victoriana and futuristic themes, has proved
popular with the British arts intelligentsia. In
July last year, Damien Hirst bought his entire
"Bullion" show at the Lazarides Gallery in Soho.
His painting Unicorn sold for an estimated
£24,500 at Sotheby's last month.

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