Like it or not, Banksy rules the art world’s political roost

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Banksy has the platform (and in cases like his sneezing Covid rats spray-stencilled inside a London tube carriage, he has the train, too) but what exactly are his politics? At first glance, they look like a rag-bag of right-on “anti” opinions: anti-right, anti-capitalism, anti-war, anti-Brexit. Choose an issue, any issue, and you can pretty much guess what Banksy’s take on it will be. There’s the 2019 mural celebrating the Extinction Rebellion protest in Marble Arch, for instance – “From this moment despair ends and tactics begin” – which is believed to be a Banksy. 

Or the image of children giving allegiance to a Tesco-bag flag (anti-consumerism) that appeared on a wall in north London in 2008. In the 2017 general election, Banksy offered voters in six Bristol constituencies a limited-edition free print if they voted against the Tories and sent him a photo of their ballot paper to prove it. He was forced to withdraw the offer by the Electoral Commission, who warned that it could invalidate the results in those areas, but you get the gist.

Some scoff that Banksy’s work is too simplistic and superficial to have any real political impact: his 2009 painting Devolved Parliament, for example, depicting the benches of the House of Commons colonised by chimpanzees, which sold for £9.9m in 2019. Yet Dominic Cummings’s understanding of the power of three-word slogans (perhaps learned from Soviet Russia), such as “Take back control” and “Get Brexit done”, and their performative part in real-world campaigns show that “simple” can be applied to politics with dramatic effects. 

Banksy always intends to influence and effect change, and he’s at his best when he’s using humour to do it. The opening sequence he created for The Simpsons in 2010, which showed a hell-like Asian sweatshop making Simpsons merchandise was accompanied by the makers’ forced laughter that, of course, it bore no relation to reality. You don’t have to agree with Banksy to admire his chutzpah.

And increasingly, his financial clout has a power of its own. Earlier this year, a mural that had appeared on the wall of Southampton General Hospital in 2020, of a boy playing with a superhero doll in the shape of an NHS nurse, set an auction record for a Banksy work of £14.4m. The money raised at the Christie’s sale, plus a portion of the house’s premium, was donated to an NHS charity. That’s an awful lot of sponsored head shaves, for a start.

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