The Arts Society Coventry
Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
Sep 7, 2021
By Leigh Mencarini
You already know him; so does your mum and probably the postman, too. Street artist Banksy was the focus of the first lecture of The Art Society Coventry (TASC), and really needs no introduction.
This was a whistle-stop tour of the street artist’s rise to fame/notoriety (call it what you will) and was worthy of its crowd in the Herbert’s large lobby.
And it marked a fantastic start to a cracking lecture programme for TASC, taking place in Coventry 2021.
Pepe Martinez delivered the goods, a London Blue Badge tour guide with a passion for art seen at street level. We were given a brief history of graffiti art to set the scene, beginning with the pure-form taggers of Philadelphia and New York in the late 1960s, through to those blank walls of Barton Hill Youth Club, Bristol, where Banksy began in the 90s.
Martinez revisited some of the stories behind Banksy’s spray paint masterpieces, and a fair few lesser-known anecdotes. My favourite being the “pivotal moment” Banksy realised he’d try stencil art; hiding from British Transport Police under a train, and spotting its stenciled serial number.
Street art battles
He also covered Banksy’s feud with graffiti artist King Robbo; the back-and-forth battle in Camden that finished with a touching tribute in 2011. It would have been great to hear more about how the graffiti art world responded to Banksy’s rise to fame, particularly since he broke so many of its unwritten rules - such as never spraying over another artist’s work.
Not that the lecture was ever short on context; the works of artists such as Keith Haring, Blek le Rat and Jean-Michel Basquiat were weaved into the lecture to anchor the proceedings. Yes, Banksy is the biggest, but he wasn’t the first – and nor does he claim to be.
Of course, the question of value came up in almost every slide. How much was this worth, how much is he worth? The commodification of art, and the absurdity of the price tag, is all part of the Banksy package, one he often pokes fun at and may even feel embarrassed about.
Yet, so often it gazumps the more interesting value of Banksy’s work – bringing art to the people. Democratising the system. Sticking two fingers up to the establishment (Duchamp, anyone?) and drawing attention to the chaos of real life in a visually accessible, often entertaining way.
There were gasps from the audience at Banksy’s critics; the late Brian Sewell suggested he should have been “put down at birth” in The Guardian in 2009.
And there were warm chuckles at Banksy’s pure audacity; the covert installation he added to the British Museum in 2005 (which nobody noticed for three days) and his shredded artwork stunt at Sotheby's (Canvas of Girl with Balloon, 2018) were real crowd-pleasers.
Summing up, Martinez revealed his top three Banksy works, and touched on the swing in critical opinion. The notion of art being “choked to death by money” makes the critics splutter praise nowadays.
So, did Martinez answer the fraud versus genius question? Not directly. Instead, he delivered plenty of evidence to allow us to form opinions of our own. Personally, I imagine Banksy to identify as a bit of both.
Labels (or tags, sorry) such as ‘fraud’ or genius’ can be useful to a point; they sort and organise, they categorise and simplify. And when you’re dealing with huge, complex issues like war, or capitalism, it’s quite tempting to find a way to put things in their place.
But that is hardly in the Banksy spirit.
For me, the remarkable thing about Banksy is that you can talk about the complicated issues that feature in his work with your mum. Or the postman.
- Discover more about The Arts Society Coventry including membership details, the 2021/22 programme and how to join. Events take place on the fourth Tuesday of every month.
- Follow Pepe Martinez on Instagram for more about his work, tour snippets and stories.
- Check out what’s on in Coventry 2021 on the City of Culture Trust’s listings page.