The week before last was the biggest in the UK art calendar. The great and good descended on London for Frieze; Hauser & Wirth opened the capital’s largest commercial gallery space; Tate Modern unveiled and promptly closed Ai Weiwei’s Turbine Hall installation…
And yet, by far the biggest story was that Banksy had created an opening-title sequence for The Simpsons (the episode aired in the US on October 10 and on UK screens on October 21). Such is his rapid rise – from illegal night-time street-art to American prime-time television – that perhaps Banksy didn’t even register it was Frieze week at all. The art world is small-fry for his ambition these days: he’s made it into the pop-culture stratosphere.
One might argue, of course, that this represents a natural democratic progression for him - from art for the masses on city streets, to art for the masses watching The Simpsons; that he’s simply eschewing the stuffy, art elite he never had any time for. Yet, one might also argue that, by accepting a lucrative commission from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox TV, actually he’s sold out.
Banksy became a national treasure a few years ago, something first anticipated in the early-Noughties when he came in from the cold to the gallery-system. By 2007, town councils were treating his old street-works as tourist attractions, rather than removing them as graffiti. And in 2009, his ‘homecoming show’ at Bristol’s City Museum and Art Gallery was the UK’s second most popular exhibition (behind Saatchi Gallery’s The Revolution Continues: New Art from China) with 4,000 visitors daily.
Working on The Simpsons now confirms him as a major international force too - assuming patronage by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at £100,000 a time didn’t do that already. Many indeed have noted that the artist and TV show make a perfect match, both having long since lost their cutting-edge.
So, what of Banksy’s sequence? Well, it kicks off in customary Simpsons fashion, but with the odd, humorous twist: the three-eyed crow now crosses the sky with a trademark Banksy rodent in its mouth, while Bart’s 100-line, classroom punishment now reads ‘I must not write all over the walls’.
Then, with the family settled on their sofa, the scene suddenly switches to a grim, Asian sweatshop, where workers are seen slavishly producing Simpsons episodes and merchandise (a dig at Fox’s cost-cutting transfer of the show’s animation to South Korea). Kittens are thrown into a woodchipper and used as stuffing for Bart dolls, while a chained unicorn punches holes in the centre of DVDs.
It’s all wilful exaggeration, of course. In the manner of much of Banksy’s recent work, it’s simple, jokey and anti-establishment – like his lesbian Queen Victoria and his snogging policemen, albeit a touch darker. There’s an obvious anti-capitalist sentiment too, but how guerrilla really is a comment about in-house Fox politics and outsourcing to the Far-East? It’s a far cry from the dangerous days prowling England’s inner cities, or the potential threat by Israeli guns when spray-painting the West Bank barrier in 2005.
Where once Banksy’s art offered an antidote to the glut of advertising that pervades our streets, he’s now an international brand in his own right. Where once he used his anonymity to dodge arrest and essay ever more daring feats, he now uses it to play pranks, grab headlines and cash in.
Not that he himself is entirely to blame for this development: there’s a fair bit of public complicity too. In a celebrity-obsessed age, we have latched onto his anonymity. Nobody wanted to know when the Daily Mail ‘discovered’ in 2008 that Banksy was in fact Robin Gunningham, an ex-public schoolboy from middle-class Bristol. We weren’t interested in the man behind the mask – for he’d inevitably be insipid and mild-mannered, just like so many other alter egos.
Yet, quite paradoxically, it’s precisely because of his facelessness that Banksy has morphed into one of the biggest celebs of all. In a contemporary-art world awash with navel-gazing narcissists, we suddenly didn’t mind if an artist gave nothing of himself away or put nothing of himself on the line. Banksy struck gold by offering a playful, self-renouncing antidote. The ultimate anti-celebrity thereby ended up as famous as any artist on the planet.
The downside of this is that Banksy’s every stunt is guaranteed exposure, regardless of its artistic quality. I can’t be the only person who grew tired of his continual visits to the world’s top museums to furtively add his own work to their displays.
This year’s documentary film, Exit through the Gift-Shop, by contrast, his brilliant directorial debut, deserved every bit of hype it received. It proved Banksy is much more than a merchant of one-off gags; it proved he’s actually a Nabokovian auteur capable of working on a whole other level of sophistication.
Exit starts out following Thierry Guetta, a mad Frenchman who compulsively films street artists at work. He becomes pals with Banksy, and decides to turn his myriad hours of footage into a documentary on the Bristolian and the street-art scene. What we’re watching, then, is a niftily layered film-within-a-film: a documentary by Banksy about someone making a documentary about Banksy. It constantly plays with our expectations that, at any moment, another layer might be peeled back and his identity may finally be revealed.
Then, suddenly, our director appears, hidden in a hoodie, apparently to restore some sense of order. He declares that the rough-cut of Guetta’s documentary was unwatchable, so much so that he advised the Frenchman to change tack completely and try his hand at street-art instead of filming. We duly watch on in amazement, as Guetta proves hugely profitable (and hilariously awful) in his new vocation, culminating in a massive one-man show in Los Angeles in 2008.
The role of director – of behind-the-scenes manipulator – suits Banksy perfectly. He plays delightful and disorienting tricks with the narrative structure, and we’re all left wondering if such a talentless sensation as Guetta really does exist or is just a fictional creation of Banksy’s to satirise art-world vacuity.
Exit represents Banksy’s most ingeniously crafted swindle yet. It’s so good it leaves you questioning where he can possibly go next. I, for one, just hope it’s not back to Springfield.
Alastair Smart is the Arts Editor for The Sunday Telegraph