We buy Warhols, Van Goghs, O'Keefes, Matisses, and the like -- shortened simply to the name. A mad scribble on a restaurant napkin by De Koonig -- hell, a restaurant receipt with a doodle -- would fetch more than a six foot by eight foot oil by the best art school graduate in the land, and while there may be money in a Basquiat, there's little in the way of a marketable skill for most graffiti bombers.
Except for Banksy, the British stenciler who not only decorates walls and overpasses but also manages to hang his art surreptitiously in some of the world's best galleries. In the last few years, Banksy's work has been highly collectible, which is no mean feat given that much of it is stuck (without authorization) on buildings along public streets and is therefore not really moveable and by default becomes the property of the property owner and nearly as impossible to guard as the previously un-defaced/decorated wall.
Aside from the originality of Banksy's stencils and his cleverness in eluding museum guards long enough to hang his work with adhesive on gallery walls, part of the allure was his secret identity. Who is Banksy? In a form associated with "the street," meaning urban, working class, and in America at least, minority, where would Banksy come from?
Over the weekend, both the BBC and the Guardian reported on Banksy's probable unmasking as a middle class and mid-thirties guy from Bristol, England (The Mail on Sunday ran the original story, but I'd rather link to the Beeb than to the tabloid). However, I can't pass up the Mail's self-satisfied chortling over their coup:
And far from being a radical tearaway from an inner-city council estate, the man we have identified as Banksy is, perhaps all too predictably, a former public schoolboy [meaning in England "private"] brought up in middle-class suburbia.
The story is complete with photos of the presumed Banksy's childhood home and Bristol suburbia. Which gets me back to the beginning: the art is attached to the artist and vice versa. Revelations of Banksy's identity now allow for biographical criticism, a form that is at its worst utterly useless in terms of finding meaning in art and at its best most penetrating in finding motivations for the artist.
The Mail, for its part, seems to think that it's performed the equivalent to the unmasking of Vanilla Ice as a middle-class kid from a good home rather than an edgy street kid...except in Vanilla Ice's case, there really was no there there. What Vanilla Ice's attempted comeback response showed (if you can remember this far back in pop culture, Ice tried to recuperate himself as a thug rapper...an astounding flop) was that he was all image -- his songs being unremarkable and his most marketable quality being showmanship.
In Banksy's case, what we have is art before the artist, a body of work with no body to attach it to, except in our collective imaginations. In other words, the image issue was really a lack of his actual image and presence, the absence of which creates its own speculative presence (which is why most of our superheroes have nondescript "everyday" alteregos).
Of course, as graffiti is technically a crime and Banksy's most common method is to select canvasses without regard to ownership, it makes you wonder if he can continue with a style that was predicated on not getting caught.