Just what is it about Banksy that makes him so popular? Is it his art? Is it his anonymity? We explore 5 reasons that could explain the popularity of the world’s most elusive artist.
An easy to understand style
Since first appearing in the public consciousness back at the turn of the millennium, the popularity of Banksy, as well as the value of his art, has soared. Rumoured to originally be from Bristol, the artist has created seminal contemporary artworks that have appeared in museums, galleries and auction houses across the world. Many of his works began life as street pieces, unique or editioned canvases before print editions were created. Typically, a work by Banksy will feature an image that, on first glance is easy to understand. However, when we examine the work more closely we see a deeper meaning that is often shocking and subversive. Indeed, in our first gallery show in 2007, many of our collector first reaction, on first seeing Banksy’s art, was to chuckle before a deep, sharp in take of breath when the final message of his work was understood.
Whilst Banksy’s identity remains a secret, his ability to capture the imagination of the public and wider artworld is the stuff of legends. From the shredding of Girl with Balloon at live auction, leading broadcaster James Peak to describe the work as “the preeminent work of the 21st century”, to recording himself graffiting a London Underground carriage, Banksy is a master of exciting and subversive pranks. Historically, the artist has always been able to generate interest in his artworks and himself through this form and over the last 15 year see how his pranks are on a different level to the rest of the artworld. From 2003-2005, he would discreetly leave his artworks in some of the most widely respected and famous museums in the world. In April 2004 for example,the street artist enter London’s Natural History Museum with his work consisting of a taxidermied rat in a glass-fronted box. entitled “Banksus Militus Ratus”. In the work the stuffed rat wears sunglasses and a full graffiti kit with the phrase “Our Time Will Come” spray-painted in the background. In the same year, Banksy created Di-Faced Tenners for a stunt in which he dropped a suitcase full of the tenners into the crowd at the Notting Hill Carnival as well as at the Reading Festival. Many people got their hands on one or more and some even spent it as legitimate currency. While causing controversy in his own way, Banksy was never actually charged for counterfeit. Other examples include his famous central park stunt, part of his Better Out Than In residency in New York, 2013, where he placed an old man was selling original Banksy paintings outside of Central Park for $60 USD, Likewise, Banksy invaded Disneyland and placed a blow up doll dressed as a Guantanamo Bay inmate inside the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at the California theme park with the assistance of Mr. Brainwash. Providing a social commentary on the War on Terror, the duo snuck a backpack stuffed with a deflated blow-up doll through security and inflated the doll near the Rocky d ride on a walkway bench.More recently, in 2022 he travelled to the Ukraine and produced harrowing and inspiring artworks to bring attention tot eh Russian invasion. Through his pranks which have deeper socio-cultural meaning, Banksy is able to keep himself relevant whilst making cutting, often humorous, observations about the world we live in.
Part of Banksy’s popularity can be attributed to the universal themes that he places at the heart of many of his artworks. It is the skill and ability of Banksy as an artist to chose seemingly simple imagery that conceals deeper themes that is one reason behind his popularity. In this sense, the marriage between easy to understand motifs and complex themes that Bamksy employs is unparalleled as not only a “street artist” but in the world of contemporary art. Indeed, works such as Girl with Balloon (hope/innocence) and others such as Love is in the Air (rebellion/protest) are works that are not tied to a time nor to a place. Show the Girl with Balloon in central London or in the middle of Tibet, and the reaction of the viewer will be the same. Banksy’s intelligence and wit contributes to the popularity of his works. Whilst certain themes, anti-establishment views for example., may not resonate with particular collectors, the point still stands, the message and theme can be easily understood.
The question often arises, who is Banksy? Perhaps the more pertinent question to his popularity should be what does Banksy represent? The elusive nature of the artist, his identity nor revealed, is a factor in his popularity as, in our opinion, it allows each individual to see what they want in the “character” of Banksy. Is he a rebel? An outlaw? A serious artist? It, obviously, depends on who you ask.
Perhaps there is an element of projection in how people view Banksy. The concept emerged from Sigmund Freud’s work on defence mechanisms and was further refined by his daughter, Anna Freud, and other prominent figures in psychology. According to Psychology Today, “Projection is the process of displacing one’s feelings onto a different person, animal, or object. The term is most commonly used to describe defensive projection—attributing one’s own unacceptable urges to another. For example, if someone continuously bullies and ridicules a peer about his insecurities, the bully might be projecting his own struggle with self-esteem onto the other person.”
Could it be that the concept of the artist Banksy is, actually, all of us? The identity of Banksy makes him a blank character where we, as his followers and fans, can project whatever we believe him to be onto. This deeply personal way of connecting and viewing the artist, his identity becoming secondary, could be a factor in his popularity.
Regardless of the exact reason as to his global popularity, the fact remains: Banksy is, undoubtedly, the most exciting artist of his generation.
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