Banksy: Graffitist of the White Bourgeoisie

Graffiti by BanksyA photo of graffiti by artist Banksy that appeared on Tendring District Council’s boathouse in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex at the start of October. (Photo: Paul Townsend/Flickr)

Middle-class outrage at the recent removal of Banksy’s graffiti in an area of poverty and racial tension indicates how disconnected the bourgeoisie are from the realities of working-class life in Britain, and is an example of the appropriation of subversive art forms by the elite.

At the start of October 2014, UK graffiti artist Banksy’s “anti-racist” stencil graffiti, presumably designed to satirize rising xenophobic sentiments in UK seaside town Clacton-on-sea, was unceremoniously scrubbed away by the Tendring City Council within 48 hours of appearing on the wall of a seafront boathouse. The council claimed to have received complaints about “offensive and racist remarks” and have since defended their decision even after they realized who was responsible.

Liberals across the country have lost no time in voicing their indignation that a real artist, whose work is valued at so many millions (almost every article makes this point, as though expensive artwork ought to carry special immunities), should be disrespected by a mere democratically elected city council, acting on the complaints of its (clearly undeserving) residents.

Some have reached the conclusion that Tendring Council simply did not understand its own actions and are now too embarrassed to admit it, or that this was a knee-jerk reaction to constituents’ complaints, evidence of the perceived fascism of “political correctness gone mad,” or the more elaborate claim that the council was attempting to deny the city’s racial tensions in the lead-up to the imminent by-election between UK Independence Party and Conservative candidates. Any of these charges may hold some truth, but the council was nonetheless within its rights to remove the piece.

First, regardless of the eye-rolling of liberal commentators, Banksy’s joke is by no means obvious. As a minority-ethnic former resident of Southend-on-sea (where UKIP recently made its most substantial gains), I can tell you that living inside the bubble of a racially charged province does not prime you to appreciate satire so much as to see the obvious or disguised threat in headlines, billboards and causal conversations.

For a person of color walking past the artwork, the most memorable – indeed, haunting – mental image will be the words: “Go back to Africa.” Even if you accept the social comment, if that phrase is something that has been shouted at you in the street or in the playground, it’s not something you will likely be glad to see painted on the walls. Knowing it was painted by a rich and famous (if anonymous) white man isn’t likely to make it easier to swallow.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones thinks that because the “foreign” bird is “beautiful,” “attractive,” and colorful (green rather than the drab grey-scale of the pigeons), we should praise Banksy for putting across the valuable idea that foreigners are more interesting and pleasing to have around. Whatever Banksy’s motivation was, Jones’ analysis comes across as starkly orientalizing.

His argument seems to run that we should be tolerant of migrants because they are exotic, exciting; they bring color to our dull (yet strangely attractive) Britain. This is a deeply insulting view on two counts. First, it instrumentalizes people of color, whose ransacked lands and cultures have been cherry-picked (whether it be in search of rich resources, flavorful food, patterned fabrics or hypersexualized women) for colorful touches to ice the cake of Britain’s colonial reminiscences. It reminds them that they are here to prove themselves valuable, attractive citizens, rather than being automatically entitled to a nominal set of rights. Second, it is insulting to the British working class, because let’s face it, the dull-as-dishwater, parochial, dim-witted pigeons are supposed to embody them.

Racism did not start as a working-class problem. It is the ruling elite, not the working classes, who control our borders, our politics, and our media, and have used this triad of power to concoct and finesse a racism that works for them. They are more concerned with the migration of money than people, and blindly adjust the flow and perception of migrant labor in order to maximize their interests. Working class people inherit these fears, which unhappily cohabit with their own, much deeper anxieties: of joblessness, of homelessness, of hunger, of cold.

If your most urgent experiential reality is that there is not enough to go around (which is easy to believe in many places outside London, if anybody bothered to check), it makes sense to resent those whose arrival looks set to make your share smaller.

Graffiti is an empowering, low-risk way of subverting public spaces, and ranges from incomprehensible displays of defiance towards authority to obviously political statements. Some of the best graffiti this year was also directed at Britain’s heightening racism: the imaginative, anonymous destruction of UKIP party billboards across the UK.

Thankfully, the UKIP posters were, for the most part, left to hang carrying their subverted messages, and many of us felt the benefit of that solidarity as we walked under them. But much of the graffiti in the UK, political or otherwise, is promptly removed by local councils (and the artists, if caught, are charged) without a word from the liberal left. If graffiti is really the accessible artistic platform we think it is, why should it be the case that the sanitized messages of one man are sanctioned (and vehemently argued for) while everyone else is labeled a criminal?

Banksy’s work has been fetishized. He speaks to and for the white middle classes, whose social status gleans an additional thrill from its fashionable – and disingenuous – connection with appropriated, white-washed aspects of working class culture. Liking (the right kind of) graffiti is like liking (the right kind of) rap music: It allows middle-class people to help themselves to the most obvious aspects of a world they will never understand and never be affected by.

Frankly – and this will be unpopular amongst those who see him as the harbinger of revolution – Banksy’s artwork is not particularly interesting or noteworthy, and his latest piece is no exception. (It rarely reaches beyond the standard of a newly-politicized adolescent; Charlie Brooker seems to agree.) It certainly wasn’t game-changing and would have made no substantive difference to the lives of the people of Clacton-on-sea. It was destined to make its way into books, the internet, and T-shirts, disembodied of any connection to its original context, and thereby robbed of its power to inspire change.

So why is this the biggest story we’ve heard from Clacton this year? Why are people more angry that a piece of artwork has been removed than furious that some communities are so neglected by Westminster that politicians and the media are able to insert their power-play and stir up hatred in such a way as to attract ineffectual artistic interventions?

Why are there so few jobs and training opportunities? Last year, a think tank report dubbed Clacton as “poverty-on-sea“: Unemployment figures stand at an alarming 50 percent. Why are people being driven into endless cycles of blame about who belongs and who doesn’t, rather than wondering why none of them have a decent shot at finding work?

If we learned anything in British politics this year, it was that almost half of Scottish voters don’t want to be part of the United Kingdom. We also learned which half that was (the poorer one). Political interests do not reach further than the M25, and the referendum result was an embarrassment to the government, though not a surprise. Despite their proximity to the capital, towns and cities in the southeast are also suffering: Communities locked into cycles of unemployment and poverty are drawn into tracing government-dictated media furrows and are tearing their own communities apart rather than directing their legitimate rage at the politicians who have ignored their needs.

This episode calls to mind a much more sobering act of annihilation: the destruction of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo in the midst of the Syrian revolution. Scores of friends who had remained silent while Syrian civilians were slaughtered by their own government expressed outrage that anyone could be so barbarous as to desecrate such an ancient historical monument.

Such is the mental stranglehold of capitalism that we are all so quick to put property before people, and cry over the stories we lose when property vanishes, rather than the stories that are lost as entire peoples are disappeared or ignored. The white bourgeois needs to let go of its proprietorial hold on the world’s artistic, cultural and historical capital. Perhaps it was a mistake to remove Banksy’s artwork (because it is a mistake to remove anybody’s artwork without very good reason), but the far bigger crime is letting Clacton-on-sea descend into such dangerous xenophobia that such a piece would be pointedly painted there and then destroyed, and then getting more upset about the latter than the former.