What is art? The best answers are useless, flat conversation killers as from Tolstoy and his type, who say art is something that infects the person beholding it with someone else's emotions. Such conversation-killers are best because pickier definitions of what art is get silly and tedious. Obviously the word, like 'love,' 'beauty,' or 'fun,' means different things for different people.
Obviously – and yet silly art critics tediously struggle to quantify what art is. But they have a good economic reason to do so. If they don't produce more than popular truisms like 'art is a thing that makes you feel,' why would we listen to them, rather than to our own inclinations, when it comes to deciding what art is good and what art is bad?
So for decades, art critics have danced around the question of quality in art by plugging the illusion that the artistic value of visual spectacles is related to a lack of popular appeal – plugging the illusions that few things are art and few people are artists, that most things and people are not art or artists, and that they, the critics, can educate us about the difference.
Are you touched by Rothko's paintings? Congratulations, my friend; you're far more sensitive than those dimwitted thousands who cried at the end of Old Yeller and who don't care what abstract expressionism is. Now consider Marcel Duchamp's signed urinal and tell me if you're not still special.
Art critics use such pseudo-elitist pandering within their industry to hawk art commodities as shamelessly as ad companies use images of sexual adequacy to sell beer. The results are mind-boggling, like Damien Hirst scoring a reported million pounds for a big copy of his son's Young Scientist Anatomy set, or Jeff Koons getting almost $2 million for copying the Pink Panther.
In both cases, the buyers may have made a good investment. If the Bigger Fools Theory holds true and if the critical system works as intended, such works will only appreciate in value. So the world of modern art is one of jaw-droppingly retarded and high stakes, of 'new clothes' on an emperor who's hung like a grasshopper. This makes its reaction to the graffiti artist Banksy a little extra interesting.
We see one side of this reaction in champagne-socialist comma-orgies like the Guardian, where Jonathan Jones panics that Banksy's popularity represents the Fall of Art. He grumbles that people who enjoy Banksy are also people who think art critics like him are either fools or grifters for admiring the likes of Damien Hirst. He even pricelessly uses the word 'philistine' – the professional art critic's equivalent of "Oh yeah? Well, SHUT UP!" In short, he sweats in print.
But why the panic, why the sweat? It's not just about Banksy's popularity – we don't see art critics whining over the massive appeal of Anne Geddes, for example. It's also about the other side of the modern art world's reaction to Banksy – the buyer's side.
It's about the money, attention, and acclaim for an artist working outside of professional criticism. Banksy's works sell at auction for ridiculous but believable, non-hedge-fundy sums. This is despite Banksy being a mass-producing artist who seems to be in the act of flooding his own market, so it looks like buyers actually like them.
So this is where I actually start reviewing Wall and Piece, with apologies for the delay.
Banksy is a shocking kind of artist, and this is a shocking book. It's not any countercultural strands in his work that are shocking, or even his images and the way they're placed; those images and strands are extremely digestible, in fact – irony laced with surrealism lacing an undeniable, appealing optimism, on some of the ugliest public surfaces North America, Europe or Palestine has to offer.
That optimism is what's shocking, because it's so out of place in the modern art market where Banksy has become a huge, expensive presence. It's practically revolutionary.
Cheerfulness or optimism is often a part of his art – a child with a toy shovel on Israel's security wall, flowers instead of molotov cocktails, bananas instead of guns. The images are stencilled up with some free painting too; always representational, sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching, and always at least a little unsettling in their content or their locations.
But the revolutionary optimism is in the existence of these images in the first place – the fact that Banksy puts these images up at all, that he makes an effort at wide artistic communication that falls outside of what's allowed, outside of criticism, and outside of arguments over what art is or isn't.
And the revolutionary optimism is also in the fact that he's self-conscious enough, through Wall and Piece, to call what he does art. His writing's not Shakespeare, but it's sufficient, since the images are the point. He pulls out a loose manifesto, and he writes about what he does and why he does it, and writes about how other people can do it too, even if that means his market getting even floodier.
Can you imagine anything worse – not for the forces of social order, considering graffiti is the least of their worries – but for the modern art industry? What happens to modern art as an industry if everybody turns their attention to creation, or at least starts really thinking about art – self-consciously forming their ideas about what they like and what they don't like, about what they want to see and what they want to make themselves?
What happens if people start sharing their visions with each other instead of quietly believing in their own incompetence and sinking into impotent elitism or complete pop culture sublimation? What if the white collar Occidental world took advantage of only having to work 40 hour weeks to become a society of (hopefully better-natured) Paul Gauguins?
Obviously the worst case scenario for art critics and investors would be the bottom falling out of a ridiculously overpriced industry – speculators turning away from artificial monster artists like Jasper Johns – and most of all, people having faith in their own aesthetic feeling. Art turning into an institution of creation and enjoyment, a labour of individual and social love, instead of a ludicrously overheated investment market demanding specialist guidance.
All of which is a long-winded way of me writing that Wall and Piece is a great book. Amusing, engaging, and most of all inspirational. I recommend it whole-heartedly. But of course I'd drop $30 on this book before $30,000 on one of his creations. Because as for Banksy's quality as an artist – meh, I'm more into abstract expressionism, myself.
Wall and Piece is published by Century and is available in Canada through Random House.