the_raft_of_the_medusa

Banksy, and the concept of Banksy, attracts criticism. For example, from The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones in 2013: “Banksy’s art is no more interesting than kitsch paintings like [Jack Vettriano’s] ‘The Singing Butler’ …  His images are trite, his politics callow, his manipulation of fame just another third-rate bit of marketing … The feting of street art is typical of modern Britain’s cultural decline … Today we go out of our way to celebrate the dullest in ourselves, as embodied by the banal works of Banksy … But what upsets me is the set of attitudes implied whenever Banksy is glorified. To glorify such an ungifted artist for his cynical stunts is to tell young people that hard work and education are irrelevant: the way to be interesting in modern Britain is to be like Banksy. This cult of the glib in art is like the celebrity culture and TV talent shows … The physicist Brian Cox recently criticised the BBC showing too many programmes that promote delusions of instant celebrity. He said he wants his kids to go to university and work hard for everything they get. Good for him. The public is better off without this work by Banksy. It would be better off without any Banksys at all.” – [2].

However, the concept of Banksy is actually quite complicated because Banksy pieces diffuse through many dimensions – and not all of them artistic. We can find more critical articles about the concept of Banksy (Jones’ “the cult of the glib“) than the cult of Picasso.

With uncertainty over Banksy’s identity, and a lack of narrative through anonymity, we can’t tell if this complexity is intentional. Let’s try examining Banksy’s “We’re not all in the same boat“.

Initially, the piece appears to be a straightforward rendering of Gericault’s famous painting “The Raft of the Medusa”. It’s selection as a basis by Banksy for also appears to be straightforward.

“The Raft of the Medusa (Le Radeau de la Méduse) is an oil painting of 1818–1819 by the French painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault (1791–1824). Completed when the artist was 27, the work has become an icon of French Romanticism. It depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast of today’s Mauritania on 2 July 1816. On 5 July 1816, at least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly constructed raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days before their rescue, and those who survived endured starvation and dehydration and practised cannibalism. The event became an international scandal … Géricault chose to depict this event in order to launch his career with a large-scale uncommissioned work on a subject that had already generated great public interest … Géricault had deliberately sought to be both politically and artistically confrontational. Critics responded to his aggressive approach in kind, and their reactions were either ones of revulsion or praise, depending on whether the writer’s sympathies favoured the Bourbon or Liberal viewpoint. The painting was seen as largely sympathetic to the men on the raft, and thus by extension to the anti-imperial cause adopted by the survivors … The decision to place a black man at the pinnacle of the composition was a controversial expression of Gericault’s abolitionist sympathies.”  – [3].

Firstly, it’s worth seeing that Gericault was a lithographer. Lithography is an image rendering technique, a quick form of printing if you like. After the original is produced, many copies can be rendered from it. Banksy employs stencilling, a quick form of graffiti. So, we can see that Banksy has not only selected Gericault’s painting, he’s also selected the painter.

Secondly, like a lithograph, Banksy strips the stencil of non-essential embellishment.

Thirdly, there are a number of other direct parallels between Gericault, Banksy, and the situation they both depict:

  • The painting’s setting is off the coast of Mauritania in Africa, of the 147 set adrift, 132 died, with only 15 surviving
  • It was an uncommissioned work on a subject that had generated great public interest
  • Gericault had sought to be both politically and artistically confrontational

Fourthly, a notorious aspect of The Medusa’s story – particularly in England – was that the survivors were said to have practiced cannibalism. Again, it’s worth seeing a sly reference to ‘cannibalism’ in the way Banksy cannibalises Gericault’s image.

Fifthly, Banksy composed the graffiti in Calais only where the two-tone wall was able to take Gericault’s sea horizon:

were_not_all_in_the_same_boat_wall_context

Of Gericault: “Critics responded to his aggressive approach in kind, and their reactions were either ones of revulsion or praise, depending on whether the writer’s sympathies favoured the Bourbon or Liberal viewpoint. The painting was seen as largely sympathetic to the men on the raft, and thus by extension to the anti-imperial cause adopted by the survivors” – [3].

Let’s return to Jones’ article.

“Banksy’s art is no more interesting than kitsch paintings like [Jack Vettriano’s] ‘The Singing Butler’ …” – Jones should be very interested in a British artist who travels to Calais to reference Gericault, working in a number of levels of interpretation.

“His images are trite, his politics callow, his manipulation of fame just another third-rate bit of marketing … ” – unoriginal and politically immature. I see the opposite. Unoriginal? Where are the other examples of graffiti that cannibalise Romantic paintings? Politically immature? That Banksy’s graffiti doesn’t rise above schoolroom politics is the accusation by Jones. But Jones asserts this as a consumer, not the producer. How are we to know whether Banksy’s politics are callow? We do not know. We do not know if Banksy was more passionate to graffiti this piece than Picasso was to mural Guernica. Manipulation of fame a third-rate bit of marketing? But which artist is not engaging in marketing?

The feting of street art is typical of modern Britain’s cultural decline … Today we go out of our way to celebrate the dullest in ourselves, as embodied by the banal works of Banksy … ” – Jones uses Banksy to embody Britain’s cultural decline, the dullest in ourselves. Banksy, arguably, offers a working vitality to the portmanteau of contemporary art.

“But what upsets me is the set of attitudes implied whenever Banksy is glorified. To glorify such an ungifted artist for his cynical stunts is to tell young people that hard work and education are irrelevant: the way to be interesting in modern Britain is to be like Banksy. This cult of the glib in art is like the celebrity culture and TV talent shows … ” – We don’t know about Banksy’s hard work or education or giftedness. What we can argue is that the majority of graffiti art is textual. Lettering. Words. What Banksy has brought to us is the working image.

The public is better off without … Banksy. It would be better off without any Banksys at all.” – I guess then that we’re not all in the same boat.

 

 

References:

[1] http://banksy.co.uk/index3-2.asp

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2013/feb/19/banksy-overrated-art

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Raft_of_the_Medusa

[4] http://banksy.co.uk/out.asp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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