It would be easy these days to be snarky about Banksy, the street artist whose works sell for millions, whose most iconic images – think Kissing Coppers – are so ubiquitous now they have surely lost some of their original provocative impact.
When a commercial juggernaut exhibition of privately-owned Banksy works rolls into town, fresh from a year-long run in London and a global tour, it might be easy to stroll past the purpose-built 1,200 square metre marquee that has been erected at Salford’s Media City for the occasion and tut to oneself about how the anonymous artist has comprehensively “jumped the shark”. It should be noted up front, however, that Banksy has neither curated nor endorsed this exhibition, featuring 145 of his authenticated works.
What he thinks of it privately is unknown – he has been publicly critical of the excesses of the art trade in the past – but one also cannot help feeling that those who have forked out big bucks to own this work have as much right as any other collector to display their acquisitions as they see fit. So here we are, 200 words into this review, still talking about the artist, the politics of his work and ethics of commercial art. Very Banksy. What of the nice pictures? It’s a strange thing, to be confronted by original versions of images so often seen in secondary form. A bit like getting to see the Taj Mahal for real, or the great iconic artworks of previous eras like the Mona Lisa or Monet’s Water Lilies.
There is no shock value, the brain knows what it is processing. It is a gentle, nicely-framed art gallery stroll of the sort that, one imagines, socially-aware street artists are contemptuous of. Yet as the brain catches up, and the eyes begin to focus not on a blurred collective mass of work but on specific pieces, with their piercing wit, social observation and visual clarity, one begins to remember why Banksy has become so ubiquitous in the first place. Devolved Parliament, a 2009 oil on canvas painting in which the House of Commons is populated by debating chimpanzees (and which sold for £9.9 million in 2019) is a timely highlight that feels like a bang-on comment on the current state of UK politics.
Banksy is less controversial than he was almost two decades ago, but that is testament to the way in which he has legitimised the value of urban art in the course of becoming a commercial powerhouse. Think what you like about the whole enterprise – and thought-provoking it certainly is – but this exhibition documents comprehensively the rise of an artistic phenomenon. Well worth a look, and a think.
The Art of Banksy exhibit is based at MediaCityUK in Salford and is running until January 8, 2023. Click here for details on ticketing.