On Valentine's day, the English city of Bristol awoke to find that Banksy had consecrated another blank brick wall with a work of guerilla street art.
The new piece is an image of a little girl with a slingshot looking up at a splatter of bright red flowers that she shot up there herself–because vandalism can be an act of love and innocence and beauty, or something like that. It's…fine. The flowers are nice, I guess… Honestly, his latest piece took me through the same cycle of feelings I experience each time Banksy is in a headline: "Oh, I bet this is going to be cool! Oh. Huh."
Banksy has this aura around his work that somehow always manages to fool me. Maybe it's a feeling left over from 2010's Exit Through the Gift Shop—which is genuinely a great movie. Or maybe it's just his politics. The idea of anti-establishment street art is, on paper, exactly what I want to see more of in the world. But these simplistic black and white figures with splashes of color—balloons, fires, explosions—they've felt stale for a while now. Is it even possible for anything so familiar and established to even be anti-establishment? If he's increasing the value of whatever surface he's "vandalizing," is there anything edgy or interesting about it? Admittedly, the fact that he's still able to sneak around and avoid detection while he works is kind of impressive… But it would be a lot more impressive if people hadn't figured out his secret identity years ago.
That time he painted an elephant was a pretty interesting twist on animal abuse, but it's been well over a decade since anything Banksy has done has been truly transgressive or surprising. His 2018 piece "Girl With Balloon"—with a shredder built into the picture frame—was a genuinely clever and interesting gag. But the main appeal was the same as Exit Through the Gift Shop's—it was a critique of the fine art world and its hollow commodification of culture. But how effective is that critique after the initial shock wears off and the new owner realizes that all the drama has just doubled the value of his purchase?
My real issue with Banksy is that he could have handed over the reigns to someone else years ago—any half-way decent art student with an eye for mimicry—and no one would be able to tell the difference. Throw up some minimal figures with a charming bit of whimsy and a message that says, "Man, society sure is messed up." Boom. Banksy.
He's a brand, and an anti-establishment brand is a pure contradiction in terms. He obviously knows that's a problem, but has he done anything to address it? To defy what people want from him and actually cross some lines? He can critique the art world all he wants, but his own career remains the clearest example of the circle-jerking groupthink that elevates a name and a couple signature touches to a seven-figure price tag. At least someone like Damien Hirst embraces the marketing and doesn't try to pretend he's taking down the system that he's clearly feeding into.
At this point, I can only see two options for Banksy moving forward: Either reveal that he actual did hand over the reigns to an art student years ago and let the ensuing chaos take over the art world—destroying the value of rich people's collections—or just start actually destroying stuff, because hegemonic capitalism is getting even staler than Banksy's art.