Banksy Most Wanted review – the king of guerrilla art … or a cringy sellout?

A great weariness tends to come over me when the subject of Banksy rears its urban-stencilled head. Whether this is my fault, the fault of the media for constantly bringing up Banksy, the fault of Banksy himself, or the fault of people who will not stop referring to Banksy in polite conversation, I don’t know.

Even so, Aurélia Rouvier and Laurent Richard’s 90-minute, documentary Banksy Most Wanted (BritBox) did a fine job of keeping ennui and irritation at bay. Its swift jog-trot through the history of one of Bristol’s most famous sons, with extensive footage of his work – in situ, on merch, in the hands of collectors who had tempted freeholders to part with parts of their non-party walls – still allowed plenty of time for consideration of the wider, more philosophical issues raised by his art.

The film was bookended by footage from and accounts of the night of Banksy’s most famous stunt/astute piece of marketing/excoriating commentary on the vacuousness of the art world: the automated shredding three years ago of Girl With Balloon (one from an edition of 25) by a device the artist had hidden in the frame, just as Sotheby’s gavel had come down on a million-quid-and-change bid for it. Or rather, as Handelsblatt journalist Stephanie Dieckvoss pointed out, the semi-shredding. “It wasn’t destructive,” she noted. “It was a change.” The altered artwork was given a new name and date – and, although it came too late for inclusion in the film, a new price. Love Is in the Bin sold (again at Sotheby’s) for £16m in October this year.

Is that a triumph for a guerrilla artist, or a betrayal of everything a man who was first taken to people’s hearts because of his anti-establishment messages supposedly stands for? “You can’t criticise the market but give it what it wants at the same time,” reckons Dieckvoss. “That’s a bit lame.”

But are we saying only the pure of heart and empty of bank account are to be trusted and admired? How good a living are you allowed? Such questions floated around, and I would have liked to have spent more time with them, or with the question of what people should do with the Banksys they or their neighbourhood or their city have been gifted. Should they be left in place as intended for the enjoyment of all, or are they – as the art dealer Robin Barton asserts – saleable items like any other, as long as you can find the freeholder and a big enough circular saw to cut through brick? (Also, are art dealers any different from estate agents? This was an implied rather than an overt query, but I’d still like it answered.)

As real-life discussions about the artist tend to, the film preferred to concentrate on the question of who Banksy – who has remained unidentified throughout his two-decade career – really is. Its consideration of this also took in the much more interesting question of what kind of person wants to know. The short answer seemed to be: “journalists eager to emerge from the sea of confusion in which they have been swimming”. Some are endearingly candid about it. As a journalism student, Craig Williams put together a viable case for it being Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja (“Me being stupid, me being young and a bit of an idiot thought I’d go after the biggest story: who is Banksy?”). The musician denied it during a concert, in a way that only fuelled more speculation (“We are all Banksy!”) and several other candidates have been put forward since – most convincingly and prosaically by a forensic expert, who followed the paper and digital trail left by the various documents that companies associated with the Banksy business are required to file.

Why let daylight in upon magic? Why not, says Williams. We know who Picasso was – what difference does it make to the art? For others, the unknowability – the Everyman-ness that anonymity provides – is much of the point when dealing with art specifically designed and placed to be accessible to all.

Rouvier and Richard’s film covered a lot of ground enthusiastically, intelligently and as unpretentiously as I’ve ever seen it done. At the very least it will give me something to recommend to those people who constantly want to talk about Banksy, and get them off my back. Even if, shockingly, it has moved me fractionally closer to being willing to listen to them one day.

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