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Banky’s stupid “Devolved Parliament” painting sold for $12.1 million last night at Sotheby’s. For reasons that are impossible to ascertain, this painting fetched a record price for an artwork that is trite, meaningless, and worthy of getting cancelled on Twitter. The 2009 painting stands 13-feet wide and portrays Britain’s House of Commons as chimpanzees.
Oh how droll! How groundbreakingly edgy! You can almost hear the auction attendees at Sotheby’s congratulating themselves on how intelligent and cutting-edge they are for liking the work. But it’s not edgy, or scintillating. In fact, “Devolved Parliament” has more in common with “Dogs Playing Poker” by C.M. Coolidge than other profit-record breaking paintings sold by the prestigious auction house.
Prior to this wretched example of representationalist easel painting, Banky’s highest auction sale was $1.7 million for “Keep it Spotless,” a piece painted by noted British artist Damien Hirst, which Banksy had painted over. At least Banksy painted “Devolved Parliament” himself, or maybe he had his assistants do it.
Hirst’s other work, including “For the Love of God,” a platinum cast human skull encrusted with diamonds, and “Away from the Flock,” featuring a dead sheep suspended in formaldehyde, is at least original, even if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Banksy is derivative, boring, and wouldn’t be half as compelling if he ditched his anonymity and said who he really was.
As a street artist gone mainstream, Banksy could be comparable to the graffiti artists-cum-art stars before him, like Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, or Shepard Fairey, but in truth he’s not as interesting as they are, not as iconic, and there are many ways better street artists in New York, including Revs, and someone who tags as Neckbeard. Banksy’s images are not deep, they’re not even shallow. Instead, they are entirely surface, with no resonance outside of a quick, emotional blip. In that sense, they are painful reminders of our time.
“Devolved Parliament” is so hackneyed, commonplace, and cliched, that it’s surprising anyone wanted to buy it at all. This idea of portraying persons of power and influence as chimps is for sure not new. In fact, it’s surprising that it wasn’t construed as a racial thing, given that there are Indian, African, Pakistani, and other non-white races represented among the elected Parliamentary members.
A few years back, if anyone can remember that far, a guy who used to have job and a career in British broadcasting, Danny Baker, made a stupid Twitter joke about a royal chimp coming home from the hospital, coinciding with the birth of yet another useless prince.
Baker lost everything, and all he did was post an old shot, of some posh couple hand in hand with a well-dressed monkey, on Twitter. Baker was entirely cancelled for his errant, unthinking joke that was meant as an attack on royalty and the institution of monarchy, but Banksy’s chimps earn a cool $12.1 million for equating elected officials with our simian relations.
Banksy’s little stencils of masked shadows throwing love grenades, or little shadow boys hitting things with hammers, or girl shadows with red balloons, have all the artistic merit of notebook doodles in the edges of margins. They are sweet, sure, and would do well to be featured on merch alongside that of San Rio’s “Hello Kitty” and “Little Twin Stars.” Yet we’re supposed to believe Banksy is revolutionary?
This twee little work of art feels like it’s meant to be cute, a send up, a roast, but it’s not even as shocking as the cynical ending of “Planet of the Apes” where it turns out: it’s Earth all along! Oh no, what have we done! How have we come to this! No, it’s not even like that. Instead it’s that wry old quip of how incompetent our elected officials are. Like that Simpsons joke where the shock jock DJ is replaced with a robo shock jock that jests “How about those jokers in Congress,” and Homer laughs because that’s right on the nose.
It’s easy to deride our reps. No one thinks that’s hard at all. We all do it every day, and even more so now on Twitter and Facebook because we get positive reinforcement for our negativity. We’re so clever in our cynicism. Isn’t Banksy just so prescient in uncovering that truth that we are led by morons in skin suits who don’t know their armpit from their asshole and scratch each indiscriminately. But no. He’s not. And “Devolved Parliament” is trash. Perhaps Banksy ought try picking the nit from his own hair before laughing at the nits roaming through the hair of others.
“Devolved Parliament” stands higher than a person, and has attempted the austerity of a Winslow Homer or his contemporaries. But unlike Homer, it offers nothing new or insightful about the human condition, our place in the world, or a way forward.
Neither does it offer beauty, for it is not a pretty picture, as Warhol, O’Keefe, Kahlo, or Elizabeth Murray could provide. It cannot approach the narrative quality of Joseph Beuys or Sophie Calle. It has none of the protest chops of Rivera, none of the innovation of Duchamp or Picasso.
Instead, “Devolved Parliament” has the feel of something that would be most at home emblazoned on a doormat, a novelty apron, or painted directly onto black velvet and sold in a casino’s lobby gallery in Las Vegas.