What’s this? He’s not even a poet! He’s the worst example of style over substance, of dumbed down culture, complex issues boiled down to a photogenic one liner. Just look at his Walled Off Hotel, in Bethlehem. OK, yes, this is a blog with caveats, but I am a big admirer of his work, and he does inspire me. This is why.
The case for the defence. If you don’t know anything about Banksy, this is his Wiki page. His work is, in my opinion, thought provoking, witty and public. The first two are subjective, yes, I accept this, but you can’t argue with the last one. I like the things that he says, about the injustices in society, about our failure to care significantly beyond our own immediate needs, the shallowness of materialism, the creeping incursion of state into our private lives, and the ridiculous nature of much of our lives. I can deal with the fact that he is talking about much of my life and my choices, I will still argue his points. I do accept that a lot of people won’t agree with him though.
Whatever you think about his politics and opinions, though, you can’t deny that he has found a format and a niche in which to express himself in a very public way, and he has caught the imagination of the liberal arts press, and of a significant audience in the mainstream. I admire this. Realistically, yes, I’d be delighted to get some of my work published in a way that might potentially reach a few hundred people, and I was very happy with the dozen or so that came to my first poetry performance. Generally, however, I think there is a lot of our poetry that could speak meaningfully to a wider audience but doesn’t, because we don’t communicate it beyond our niche crowd and, indeed, we don’t want to communicate it beyond our niche crowd. Banksy hijacked an art form and used it to build his own brand, and is using it to communicate his own message in an incredibly effective way. People want to preserve walls that he painted on, they want to steal sides of building because of his work. Why shouldn’t we aspire to write poetry that goes beyond our immediate circle, and which sticks like one of those hooked plant seeds onto the clothes of passers by, to be carried for weeks without really being noticed.
On the other hand, I will accept that Banksy doesn’t really offer any solutions. His voice is a voice of protest, repeating “This is Crap” without really giving you a clearly defined alternative. We have a lot of this, right now, rejoicing in Post Truth, simply saying “This is Wrong” and never saying “This is Right”.
Should poetry offer the problem and a solution, or is it enough to simply highlight the issue, allow the reader an insight or an encounter, and then allow them to work their own response from this. I can argue both sides of this – I’m a preacher on the one hand and a poet on the other. I find that there is a lot of common ground but broadly speaking I will travel further towards a solution as a preacher, and give the reader more space to fill in as a poet. In my experience, a lot of poetry tends towards short form which, by definition, limits the scope to go beyond the immediate observation, emotion or experience. For example, read your way through some Hilborn or Lee-Houghton.
I think this is fine. I enjoy reading poetry that prompts my imagination and my own train of thought. Banksy does the same. I might not agree with his point, I might have to think through the response, but I enjoy the challenge. And the same is true for poetry. I don’t read Bukowski for tips on gambling, relationships and sensible drinking – I read him as as imperfect mirror that I can hold to my own life and values.
Yes, perhaps Banksy is just middle class, hipster, anarchy-lite; the Waitrose fake rebellion. It’s all superficial and not half as clever as it thinks it is. There are no solution, no coherent arguments, but I would say that even simply as a voice of protest it has integrity. Does it remain as a valid protest, if you can photograph the wall art and turn it into calendars, posters, fridge magnets… Likewise, the half sentence from a protest poem that becomes a motivational poster.
In summary, I still present Banksy as a positive influence. I believe that poetry should be a sharp tool for prickling and nagging, and I believe that poetry has a challenge to find ways to express itself beyond the reading groups and the libraries. We have Youtube, we have Twitter, we have technology around us, there is an audience which is already listening to the voices that say “this is wrong” and who really need some engagement past this point towards “this is right”. An audience who are living off emotional junk food, spoon fed from social media. Poetry is an alternative with substance, meaning.
All of the pictures are from his book, btw, which you can buy here.