Book Reviews

Will Ellsworth-Jones, Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2013), 322pp.Will Ellsworth-Jones, Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2013), 322pp.

           If you've ever walked through an art museum and felt clueless about what you were viewing, or put off by an unspoken artsy elitism, Banksy might be your man. He dismisses those staid and white-walled galleries as "just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires." Banksy is the anonymous street artist from Bristol, England, who's now famous the world over. The irony of hiding his identity while feeding his fame is only one of his many contradictions. Will Ellsworth-Jones doesn't know who Banksy is, nor is his book in any way authorized or official, but it's still a good introduction to one of the world's most provocative artists.

           Banksy is an "outsider who's become the insider." He started off stenciling graffiti in Bristol; he says he was never good or fast enough for free hand spraying. His simple but politically powerful images gained notice, then notoriety, and before long his "incursion paintings" appeared all over the world. This was brilliant street art as biting social commentary, and most people loved it. So-called real artists hate it: "in Banksy the philistines are getting their revenge," groused one critic. City council members objected to the vandalism until they realized that a Banksy made their city hip. Other graffiti artists have painted over his work, while still others steal it and then sell it for massive profits.

          Twenty years have rolled by and the questions have multiplied. Can you be a subversive if you invite Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to your art show? If your work is now coveted by auction houses, private dealers, collectors, gallery owners and old-school museums? Isn't there a big difference between tagging a tunnel with graffiti and making productions to hang in a gallery? So-called "splashers" dump paint on his work and argue that the millions of dollars now commanded by Banksy (most of which Banksy never sees) are a sure sign that it's simply "bourgeois-sponsored rebellion." To make up your own mind, do a google image search by using his name, visit his website, read the wiki article about him, or watch the Oscar-nominated movie made by Banksy called Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is an ironic study of how and why people will honor the craziest stuff as "art."