Banksy graphitised a prisoner seeking freedom from Reading Gaol by paper for rope and a 1900’s typewriter as a weight: the figure is youthful, shadowed and donning sunglasses, if not awkwardly placed and imbalanced. I believe it to be a metaphor for the ability of Art to free us from the prisons we all have endured in these COVID times. It is a profound way of looking at what essentially is graffiti – an illicit and legally defined criminal act. I like the notion the convict is Banksy, himself, recognising his misdemeanours. However, others look at it differently, in a way far removed from its entity, its persona, as endorsement of Reading Council’s long promised philistine and provincial policy on culture and the arts: an opportunistic take, perhaps, like a thief pocketing a £50 note dropped by mistake. Here crime pays and is condoned.
Art can be political. But should art be politicised?
If Art has any purpose it is to provoke a reaction, an evocation, perhaps re-evaluation, understanding and enrichment from the subject matter. It serves a purpose greater than to exist. It has much potential as a reflection of our lives and our society; it should generate emotion while intoxicatingly probing into our conscience and subconscious. Banksy’s work lacks value if it does not prompt response from the very style and environment in which he works. I argue it is purposeless if it did not face retaliation in the street warfare in which graffiti art exists. It is not a museum piece –his bunch of monkeys in a parliament, or should it be Council, better serves that purpose – it is social, opportunistic expression recognising its impermanence. This is not conventional art and Banksy may not be its finest exponent. However, it is a flash mob performance and one that has become too frequent, overrated and commercialised by the art dealing establishment – Basquiat unharnessed. They should persuade Banksy to work only on canvas or join an advertising agency if his creativity is intentioned to sell spin and newspaper space.
There is though something more powerful in play than just a bit of graffiti – the people unsure of its pedigree waited for confirmation that it was Banksy! Somehow if it was not, what they saw was nothing more than mediocre graphics. I smile and you can guess why.
Along comes another anonymous actor who scribes a ‘tag’ proclaiming ‘Team Robbo’, a homage to the gifted nemesis of Banksy now deceased, and obliterates the typewriter – why is this not art? Why is it less worthy? It is as significant as Du Champ adding a moustache on Giaconda (Mona Lisa), albeit not the original painting and without the media frenzy. For me, because of the second street artist, the Banksy billboard has become by far a more important work – he or she has corrected the misplaced iconic, out of period, writing implement, the one symbol which prevents ascription to Oscar Wilde; the local media’s hyped intention behind the work?
Furthermore, the youthful face (at least relative to mine), sunglasses and agility of the convict do not evoke Oscar either? The art has been wasted if pigeonholed for political gain?
Have we not here art as a reflection of our society; all praise is to Banksy as all condemnation is to Anon? Bias, prejudice, censorship, spin and snobbery springs to mind whilst both artists have demonstrated skill worthy of public attention. Art has to be contentious? Art has to evoke emotion? Art makes you think, asking only for your interpretation and welcoming of the values you place on it. It would be jaw dropping if both works were one and the same protagonist. Now that would be newsworthy and that would be of interest to historians. Brand “Banksy” or Brand “King Robbo” do not automatically produce masterpieces on subway walls and there is so much in this work which confirms it as a graphic – the origami shoulder joint and flatness of the right arm to highlight one section.
So we have art and we have the Machiavellian subplot raised by the authorities who like Nero call the shots on whether a work adorning a public space stays or goes – thumbs up or thumbs down. If the prisoner was not painted by the pimpernel Banksy would it have been pressure washed away by early dawn extermination squad reminding us of the gaol’s history or would it be given deeper reflection as Grayson Perry demonstrates for the public efforts in his Art Club programme. He and his wife frequently turns up inspiring and worthy art deserving recognition in a gallery?
Mediocrity is Reading Borough Council. And support of the arts, as one of the many essential markers of an intelligent and advanced civilisation, show no signs of breaking ground in their list of must achieve. People have forgotten the battle for South Street, the Abbey gate, the pitiful offering of workspace in Brock Barracks, the constraints of the turbine room as a result of the same junk commercial argument espoused today, the lament of WOMAD and the ongoing promises of a contemporary functioning arts’ complex; the prison conveniently available for its fourth incarnation of insincerity. Reading is not fit for the arts – a recce of public galleried space proves that. The prison artwork which surely requires planning permission has become a metaphor for incompetence aided by the Council who must be seen as the biggest impediment to a flourishing civilisation. Reading was first built by people, now destructively planned out of humanity – and this is the backdrop for street art, the hit and run of free expression in urban decay.
I admire this work for what it has become – a metaphor for Reading and for that reason alone. The saviour of Banksy, the man with bucket of soap suds, puts the debate to rest: Reading is that ubiquitous road full of good intentions and therefore worthy of being the canvas for those frustrated by its society which ignores their lot and throws out stale fodder to placate the starving – graffiti is the art of those with a social conscience, a Jerusalem moment and a comment. It is a sure sign that the town will be the canvas for more profound criticism and you cannot shut Pandora’s Box once you have lifted the lid, Oscar Wilde learnt that.
Banksy has inadvertently cursed Reading in a way perhaps never intentioned because his alleged support of using a many centuries’ old graveyard filled from cells, torture and penal servitude gives rise to primarily what? What type of centre is planned – I have yet to learn, but it will be a shadow of those shelved concepts which preceded it. Whatever it is, it is much desired by the Luvvies who have given their unconditional support of it in the name of Oscar Wilde. Reading you have one shot at this, so make certain that it delivers for the arts, for artists of all persuasions and for integrity of the arts now and long into the future. This Complex is being promoted essentially to honour one man who wrote a poem in France upon his release from the treadmill; by far the most pathetic of imaginings of all those that have preceded it. Yes Reading needs an Arts’ complex capable of delivering shows of international standing. Oscar Wilde is not the rationale, nor should his name be used as Banksy has been used to promote it. Start with what Reading deserves and not what surely is offered as tokenism in his name.
As I return to my humdrum world as a result of COVID restrictions, surrounded by art, culture and good friends on the web – I wish you the same Reading: Break Free, be creative, write, paint, dance or sculpt, and but let spirit waft. I wish that you can escape from your prison too and turn to the arts for development and mind boggling craziness that can be creativity – my reading of Banksy’s great prisoner. I conclude: Reading needs a culture champion who can tell a Vantongerloo from a Mondrian and spin from substance. Is there anyone or any group in Reading who has visionary in their name? Banksy has started the debate now seize the moment! Do not let a prison be built around you as has happened to the Banksy Convict.