Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain
Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall, by Will Ellsworth Jones, St. Martin’s Press, Feb. 2013
Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall, billed as “the first ever full-scale investigation of the artist,” is a tantalizing but somewhat misleading title for Will Ellsworth-Jones’ new book about British street artist Banksy. As anyone with even cursory information of Banksy knows, the artist remains anonymous despite his fame, taking considerable pains and likely money to maintain his anonymity.
The book is not, as its title may suggest, a biography of Banksy the Man. We are not treated to descriptions of the way Banksy moves across a room or what cereal he prefers for breakfast. As Ellsworth-Jones points out, a sufficiently motivated investigative journalist could probably ferret out enough facts to write such a book. However, even allowing for the difficulty of getting anyone close to Banksy to talk, it is doubtful that such a book would be very fascinating, given what is known about the artist. Banksy is an average-looking man from Bristol, England, around 40 years of age, and trained to be a butcher before making his way as a street artist. Hardly high drama.
Rather, Ellsworth-Jones’ book is something far more interesting. It is mostly an examination of the large cast of characters who surround Banksy, both officially and unofficially. Having no access to Banksy himself, and with no one close to Banksy willing to be interviewed about the artist, Ellsworth-Jones is forced to construct his study as an outsider. Ellsworth-Jones’ background as an investigative reporter (he was formerly chief reporter and New York correspondent for the Sunday Times) is evident in the tireless research (the back of the book includes a nine-page list of sources), interviews, and shoe leather that went into the writing of the book. The book is insightful enough to be worth reading for even the most knowledgeable Banksy fan, yet accessible to the more casual reader.
The book itself is also quite attractive, and worth reading in hard copy for that reason. The book’s pages are edged in black, and when the book is opened one can see that the color has been applied such that the pages appear as though they had been spray-painted. A 16-page inset of color photos features Banksy’s street art in situ and large color photos are also featured in the inside covers of the book. Page numbers and headings that appear to have been stenciled and spray-painted round out the theme.
While writing an unauthorized book about Banksy may sound like a hopeless effort, what emerges is a foray into a world where identity and value are changeable, seemingly controlled by unseen forces. We enter a world where a man who is arguably the most famous and recognizable artist since Warhol is also anonymous, where a young artist from humble beginnings has propelled himself to considerable success working largely outside the establishments of the contemporary art world. It is a world in which a signed, limited edition Banksy print can be flipped instantly on eBay for a considerable profit, but a genuine Banksy cut out of a wall is all but guaranteed to become a white elephant (the official authenticator of Banksy works, Pest Control, will not authenticate works not originally created for sale). It is also a world in which Bristol Museum, in Banksy’s hometown, allowed the artist to take over the entire museum for an exhibition in 2009 –with preparations so secret that not even all museum staff were in on it –but where Banksy was glaringly absent from a 2008 “Street Art” exhibition at the Tate Modern (and, indeed, the Tate still holds no works by Banksy and has never officially shown his work –perhaps they are still hung up over that incident in 2003).
The figures that surround Banksy are no less interesting than the central paradoxes of his career. We meet Steve Lazarides, Banksy’s former manager, whom Ellsworth-Jones likens to P.T. Barnum. We learn about Banksy’s current gatekeeper, Holly Cushing, described as a tough woman favoring a bright red and pink wardrobe, and Banksy’s publicist Jo Brooks, whose job seems largely to consist of denying interview requests. We also meet graffiti artists from Banksy’s early days, unauthorized dealers specializing in unauthenticated Banksys, and carnival workers with a Banksy painted on the side of the re-purposed refrigeration trailers they call home. And lest he be forgotten, there is Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash, the unlikely but fitting star of Banksy’s 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop, whom Ellsworth-Jones assures the reader really does exist and is not Banksy.
What is most striking about Ellsworth-Jones’ depiction of Banksy’s career is the artist’s drive. Sources describe Banksy as someone who was always driven, how they sensed he would make something of himself, even in the days when prints of his work were sold out of car trunks for a pittance and an early show was held at a neighborhood laundromat. Also, Banksy has always had a keen sense of spectacle, including an early show featuring live rats running around the gallery and a 2006 Los Angeles show with a live elephant painted with a psychedelic wallpaper pattern.
The book’s subtitle “The Man Behind the Wall,” is an obvious nod to the trope of the “man behind the curtain.” As those familiar with The Wizard of Oz will know, when Dorothy and company finally reach the great and powerful wizard, he at first intimidates them and refuses to grant their wishes. But when Dorothy’s dog Toto pulls away the curtain, revealing an unimpressive-looking old man, the “Wizard” is forced to grant their wishes and gives a heart to the Tin Man, courage to the Cowardly Lion, a Range Rover to the Scarecrow, and so forth.
Banksy, who once captioned a work "I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit,” seems well aware of the phenomenon of the man behind the curtain. While Banksy himself is very much a “man behind the wall” controlling his own work, he is also thumbing his nose at the men and women behind the curtain who are the gatekeepers of the contemporary art world –a world where visual art is most prized when it requires a literary text, often of questionable value, for interpretation. One walks away from Ellsworth-Jones’ book with a conclusion that Banksy was wise to avoid the man behind the curtain –who, after all, can only grant us what we had all along.
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Adev is an accomplished equestrienne, metallurgist, and Time Magazine's Person of the Year for 2007. Adev reviews books for Whitehot Magazine.