Great art sears the imagination indelibly – Banksy's overpriced murals fizzle briefly in news headlines, and are soon forgotten
Banksy is an artist who only exists in the eye of the public. This is literally true. There is no one called Banksy – it is, famously, the pseudonym of an artist who wishes to remain anonymous. But it is also true as a description of his work's dependence on fame: take away the mystique of media attention and it turns to dust like a vampire at dawn.
Some art can exist just as well in silence and obscurity as on the pages of newspapers. The Mona Lisa is always being talked about, but even if no one ever again concocted a headline about this roughly 510-year-old painting it would still be as great. The same is true of real modern art. A Jasper Johns painting of a network of diagonal marks surrounded by cutlery stuck to the frame, called Dancers On a Plane – currently in an exhibition at the Barbican – was just as real, vital and profound when it was hidden away in the Tate stores as it is under the gallery lights. Johns does not need fame to be an artist; he does not even need an audience. He just is an artist, and would be if no one knew about him. Banksy is not an artist in that authentic way.
Banksy, as an artist, stops existing when there is no news about him. Right now he is a story once again, because a "mural" by him (street art and graffiti no longer suffice to describe his pricey works) has been removed from a wall and put up for auction. Next week the story will be forgotten, and so will Banksy – until the next time he becomes a headline.
Banksy's art has no life as art, no aesthetic or even anti-aesthetic effect, no content beyond the trite, no personality. It is just a brand: effective in marketing terms, occasionally pithy as propaganda, but with nothing to fill the heart and mind. This art is soulless and flavourless. It is an archetypal product of our society: it exists only to be talked about, the perfect message for social media.
I want art that is physically and intellectually and emotionally real. I want a Robert Rauschenberg box studded inside with nails like an inverted Congo fetish; a Picasso painting of a dwarf dancer; a Roy Lichtenstein fighter plane. All these and more pieces of art are in exhibitions right now. When the exhibitions close they will still be masterpieces. Great art burns in the imagination; Banksy fizzes mildly in some other, less important part of the mind.