Banksy: The Bristol Legacy
Bristol’s very wonderful Redcliffe Press has just published BANKSY: THE BRISTOL LEGACY, a book about the 2009 Banksy show at the City Museum & Art Gallery. The exhibition attracted over 300,000 visitors and established, once and for all, that street art or graffiti, or whatever you call things painted on walls by people who don’t always have the property owner’s permission, was a key part of the Bristol brand.
I’m responsible for one of the book’s chapters, but don’t let that put you off buying it as editor Paul Gough has pulled together plenty of talented, and incisive contributors to look at all manner of aspects of the show and its aftermath, from arts critics and curators to economists and lawyers.
Me, personally, I don’t know nothing about art, but what does interest me in the case of Banksy and Bristol’s other street artists, is the changing nature of their relationship with Official Bristol. A few of us made some short speeches at the book launch. Here’s what I said:
In the last 25 years or so, official Bristol has performed one of the most remarkable U turns in the city’s entire history.
Back in the 1980s young graffiti artists were arrested, hauled before the beaks, given criminal records and generally treated as vandals.
The local media generally gave them a hard time, though not nearly as much as the correspondents in the letters pages, some of whom really did say they hadn’t fought a world war just so’s these young punks could make a mess of our city.
Naturally, we at Venue magazine were all liberal about it. Every year or so for about 20 years we’d do a big article about street art, usually with the headline or strapline is it art or is it vandalism?
Hindsight suggests we were slightly missing the point. You can parachute in a crack elite squad of highly trained art critics and never get any real agreement. In any event the question is irrelevant.
Instead, the question we should all have been asking all along, is “do we want this stuff on the walls of our city, or what?”
The answer that the Bristolian public came up with, long before most councillors, was a resounding yes, and much of that is down to Banksy.
Nowadays, graffiti is a key part of the Bristol brand. It’s up there with Brunel and Wallace and Gromit when we’re trying to bring in tourists, students or attract business.
Last year’s See No Evil street art festival was a huge success, as of course was the Banksy museum show before that. We’ve now taken graffiti so much to heart that in the case of Stokes Croft, official Bristol is prepared to believe that it might even be instrumental in turning around an area with all manner of social and economic problems.
In less than a generation, graffiti has gone from being the problem to the solution.
And if there’s any individual who’s responsible for that remarkable turnaround, it’s been Banksy.
Many, maybe most, of us think that the Banksy museum show was the key turning point in that transformation. But in my contribution to this book I suggest that the moment civic Bristol performed its historic U turn was actually a few years before that. Buy the book and feel free to disagree.
Now we face probably several decades of new debate in the media and on the internet about whether our graffiti artists have sold out to The Man, or whether they’re keeping it real, or what?
If we do that, we’ll be missing the point again. Who cares if they’ve sold out or not? The question will always be whether or not we want this stuff on our walls.
There’s another question, too. And that’s whether or not we’ll be smart enough to recognise it when – if – a new generation of youngsters comes along, maybe pursuing some new, different creative avenue. Will we be smart enough to realise it when we’re confronted with a new group of enterprising, gutsy kids who are inspiring and entertaining us … Or will we persecute them, and post moans on the message-boards about how we didn’t fight World War Three just so’s these young punks could take the mickey.
I hope not. I like to think that actually, Bristol nowadays is a far more intelligent place. And one of the things that’s made us more intelligent is all that thought-provoking, weird, decorative, funny or sometimes just plain enigmatic stuff on walls all over the city. In the 1980s all we had were billboards advertising booze, fags and cars. We have come a very long way, so well done Banksy and well done us.
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