Tate Gallery, London
Of all the artists discussed, the graffiti artist Banksy is the least explicitly personal in his work. His language is not confessional. However, by publicly branding his own “name,” Banksy makes his own identity a monument. Thus there exists that tension seen in the previous artists’ work where the artist claims to be more anonymous and detached from his/her words than s/he actually is.
However different, Banksy’s language is as violently blunt, accusatory and tortured as the other artists in its outcries against social oppression and corruption. In one piece he depicts a man being brutally attacked by police officers. Behind them one reads: “I fought the law and I w…” – the words drip like blood and are cut off right where it would spell ‘won,’ an aesthetic that heightens the suppression, the fight.
Banksy likewise often attacks publicity companies. One of his pieces consists of a starved, poor child surrounded by flies wearing a Burger King paper hat. As Wright puts it, “many of Banksy’s pieces…thumb their noses at authority and urge us not to swallow the usual lines fed us by politicians and big business” (51). Banksy’s work explicitly denounces public authorities that pierce the landscape with their messages, that manipulate our visual associations. Thus, he reveals a consciousness of our semiotic reading as he implies his belief that those “who control sign systems control the construction of reality” (Chandler).
With Banksy, we see again the importance of the aesthetics of the word, of its role as a visual element. His words often resemble that of billboards, public signs, subvertisers and political activists. Thus he draws on public signage, “taking something [that is] accessible to all” (Wright, 52). However, his images supply the viewer with contrary content, as with the Burger King image. Indeed, Banksy has compiled a witty semiotic body of work, where he lends a new “signified” to each “signifier.”
A lot of Banksy’s critique is done in a tongue-in-cheek and ironic language. An ideal example of this is his work targeted towards the pretensions of the art gallery and museum. In the past he has stenciled “Mind the Crap” on the entrance steps of the Tate Modern. He has likewise once put up on the walls of the British museum “a hoax cave painting of a stone age man” with an explication in the style of a museum label (Guardian). He critiques the exhibition culture when he ends his placard with: “The majority [of this art] is destroyed by zealous municipal officials who fail to recognise the artistic merit and historical value of daubing on walls.” Characteristically British in its satirical language, this piece, like Perry’s, calls into question the limits defined by the art establishment. Banky’s work thus exemplifies the British artistic desire to communicate in plain, direct language that breaks the boundaries defined by social authorities.
Banksy, Grayson Perry, R.B. Kitaj, Tracey Emin and David Hockney thereby all resemble Hogarth in their choice to deliver their personal views through words, which are in turn used to interpret or twist images. Both are in dialogue with one another, the words generally providing the content and the images providing the context. However, importantly, without the context (the images), the words would be largely drained of their meaning. Thus these artists’ work relies on a semiotic reading.
Beginning with Hogarth, there has been a trend in subject matter in British art– authority and social suppression, the self and society. Such subject matter not only endures, but is also intensified in artists’ work today. Over time, as British artists have gained more liberty in their expression, their language has become increasingly forthright and cheeky.