Parliament, you may have heard, isn’t currently held in high repute. It might, therefore, seem apt that the art sale in the headlines this week – during Frieze London, too – wasn’t an abstract expressionist work, or a sculpture in stainless steel, but a 14ft figurative painting of the House of Commons in which the MPs are all chimpanzees.
But Devolved Parliament is the work of Banksy, and the sale, it seems to me, is a joke in a number of ways. Much of the joke, for a start, is on whichever member of the beau monde spent £9.9 million on the painting at Sotheby’s. The work isn’t new – it’s a decade old – though the artist has tweaked it a little of late. The lights in the chamber, for instance, are dimmer; a banana is now upside-down. “It’s just so topical,” the dealer Acoris Andipa sighed to The New York Times.
Some of the joke may be on Banksy himself. The sale beat his record auction price (£1.5 million) and the painting’s guide price (£1.5-2 million), but he didn’t own Devolved Parliament and won’t have earned royalties.
The rest of the joke is on a public who thinks Banksy a renegade, not a hack. The artist is understood to be anti-establishment in a vaguely sixth-form way – his biographer, Will Ellsworth-Jones, told me that he has “a sort of Guardian politics” – but his work is, on the contrary, as supercilious as art can be. He treats you like a fool: here is my work, swallow my message.
Witness his mural in Venice this year: a refugee girl holding a flare in bubblegum pink. The saccharine colour and the likeness to the Statue of Liberty are satire for tiny tots. The only thing at Sotheby’s that wasn’t a joke, therefore, was Devolved Parliament itself. (Except the title, I suppose, though if ever a pun bore out Freud’s riff about “the lowest form of wit”, it’s that one.)
The point is to solve the message, and as ever with Banksy, the subtlety is pegged to how much the artist thinks you can understand. In brief: MPs are unedifying fools, like chimps.
This isn’t anti-establishment at all. The point of satire is to extract the hidden faults of a person or thing, in order to show how their behaviour could be transformed. If the audience looks or listens carefully, they’ll find vestiges of their own behaviour echoed back. This can amount to a political purpose, if it’s done incisively.
But Devolved Parliament has nothing to say about how British politics fell so low, or in what way, or how it might be redeemed, or why any of this matters, or how. An individual chimp cannot evolve. You can only point and snigger. This is £9.9 million of nihilism in paint.
And, whatever the subject at hand, that’s the only move Banksy has. Another example: an Extinction Rebellion-themed mural, created one night in April, depicts a child who holds an XR sign and tends a small green shoot. She represents innocence, because she could represent nothing else. The effect, here as elsewhere, depends on the use of children: creatures who need protection from bad people and suffer projection by the good.
Banksy’s art is coercive, and its politics are trash, because its modus operandi is to make you ignore the complexities of things. Few critics care about his work, beyond a horror that he represents contemporary art in the public eye. But his “subversive” gestures only win him more headlines, only thrill his audience more. When his print Girl with Balloon was sold for £1.04 million at Sotheby’s last year, he shredded it live, to gasps and coos. Just watch: next time it’s auctioned, retitled “Love is in the Bin”, the price will be higher than that.
When it pays to be the licensed jester, why would he quit the role? A clear, distinctive identity suits nothing so much as a brand. With Devolved Parliament, according to Sotheby’s, Banksy “distils society’s most complicated political situations into just one deceptively simple image”.
There’s nothing “deceptive” about it. He didn’t ring the tills on this occasion, but the sale drives up the value of the works, such as prints, that he does directly sell. Banksy, at heart, is a grifter. In that sense, his talent is clear.