Jonathan Jones Existential Question Time

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Just as the opportunity to (again) berate an anonymous graffiti artist for making attention-grabbing, disposable work seems like too much of an open goal, it’s almost unethically easy to pick the holes in another hysterical column by Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones.

But then again, he’s always coming up with the goods, so why not afford him some attention?

Jones’s polemic against Banksy last week was his reaction to the notoriously anonymous Bristolian’s ‘Balloon Girl’ – a simple, stencilled image that first appeared in 2002 on the side of a bridge on London’s South Bank – having just usurped Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’ by being voted the nation’s ‘favourite artwork’.


Jones is an outspoken opponent of what he alleges that Banksy and their popularity represents; some quick Googling will reveal that Jones checks in pretty much annually to pick up where he left off, much as he has done with (the admittedly more visibly ubiquitous) Grayson Perry. The nature of his complaint? That the viewing public are being duped into appreciating works that display a lack of effort, an absence of passion, and that therefore do not qualify as being ‘art’ at all.

Jones’s critique of Banksy has, by now, completed the bingo-card of reactionary tropes. In 2007, he called Banksy’s work ‘art for people who think that artists are charlatans’, representing a rise of the ‘philistines’. When assessing the newly opened Dismaland ‘bemusement park’ in 2015, he quipped on the irony ‘that one of the most famous critics of the way we live now is nothing more than a media-savvy cultural entrepreneur’. Now, in this latest fit of spleen, he calls Banksy a propagandist who makes ‘art for the media age’, whatever that is supposed to mean, alluding to Twitter like an exasperated parent who has tried using a smartphone only to give up.


And this is why Jones’s broader critical argument is worthy of interrogation rather than just being dismissed out of hand. Of course, he’s entitled to whatever opinion he has of Banksy, or for that matter any artist who quickly produces straightforward, sloganeering work that is designed to be instantly and almost universally understood. It’s another thing, though, to be continually berating public, or popular, tastes and using the success of Banksy or Grayson Perry as evidence of declining standards – or even ‘stupidity’, as the headline wails.

The header image of a young woman snapping a copy of the chart-topping Banksy on her phone puts it all out there: these are the kind of people who are apparently ruining art. Jones begins by bringing in John Ruskin as the Virgil to his intrepid pilgrim, quoting the eminent Victorian’s views on public ‘stupidity’. He’d previously invoked Ruskin in his October 2016 tirade against Perry and is perhaps unaware that, be repeatedly doing so, he is aligning himself with the kind of high-cultural scare-mongering that emboldened the twentieth-century’s ugliest campaigns of hatred against the great unwashed masses (see John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, amongst many others). Perry himself is problematic as a finger-wagger, but at least he seems to carefully consider questions of audience.

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The underside of the question that Jones ask – do artworks like Banksy’s ‘Balloon Girl’ deserve their popularity? – is surely, “Do the public deserve to have access to art, given that they are unlikely to appreciate it?” To frame this, as he does in this article, within the current political climate of far-right populism, presenting it as a defence of values in the age of Trump and fake news, smacks of cynical opportunism.

It’s not just that Jones fears for the future of art and its audience, but that, like all good reactionaries, he fears philistinism will lead to rampant iconoclasm, the destruction of Western art’s heritage and the corruption of all culture. In this article, he supports his argument by lambasting the recent production of Twelfth Night by the Globe’s outgoing creative director Emma Rice, which features a Luhrmann-esque cavalcade of drag queens and disco dancers against the buttoned-down backdrop of the Thatcher era. He yokes the advent of such a liberal adaptation to the work to the rise of Banksy, ‘that night at the Globe’ similarly exhibiting ‘no effort’ in creative terms. But again, it’s less about the work itself than the implication of a heathen public that has apparently demanded it; Jones does nothing less than refer to Nuremberg, bundling in art-poll-voters and casual theatre-goers with Nazi book-burners.


These are the same old anxieties about public taste and popularity as those in the age of Ruskin, the mid-twentieth century, and pretty much every period to varying extents. It’s re-stating the obvious, but just because something has proven popular that doesn’t mean that all other ‘good art’ has been supplanted and is now at risk of erasure. The rise and rise of pop music in the 1960s was much-maligned by cultural critics, cutely exemplified by Sean Connery’s rug-chested, woman-slapping Bond quipping about the allegedly unlistenable Beatles in 1964’s Goldfinger; now the Fab Four couldn’t be more enshrined in the canon, more exhaustively pored over by historians and theorists. And, crucially, their success did not wipe the cultural landscape of Handel, Elgar, etc.

Nevertheless, Jones sees the triumph of Banksy’s ‘Balloon Girl’ over Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’, previous holder of the top-spot in the nation’s affections, as hugely significant. Jones is suggesting that some kind of artistic spirit is being lost, named in this article as the spirit of ‘punk’; this is disingenuous on so many levels that it’s best to keep this brief. Jones enthusiastically quotes lyrics by Paul Weller, whilst suggesting early punk pioneers viewed pop music as trash. This is the same Paul Weller who made his name with two-/three-minute verse-chorus-verse-chorus songs; who was influenced by the most bucolic tendencies of the Beatles and the Kinks; who, when choosing his favourite records in a 2015 interview, praised Nick Drake’s album Bryter Layter because it ‘just has great pop songs’.


If Jones really was the student of punk that he claims, he’d know that punk music was partly an attempt to return song-writing to the finding of a single kernel of an idea expressed in the most direct and unembellished way possible. Punk was a reaction to the excesses of the mid-1970s. The Ramones in particular were unashamedly keen to revive a pre-Beatles simplicity encapsulated by early girl groups and rock ‘n’ rollers, when music was about escaping teenage boredom by dreaming about cars and mildly perilous misadventure.

It’s evident that Jones is flailing for anything to support his prophecies of imminent cultural dereliction. But what of the poll that re-ignited Jones’s ire and spawned this latest article? Jones doesn’t reveal this detail, but a quick search confirms that the offending list of Britain’s favourite artworks was voted for by just 2,000 people, who were asked to choose their top 5 from a shortlist chosen by arts writers including broadsheet columnists. The survey itself was commissioned for the launch of a Samsung television, dubbed ‘The Frame’, that camouflages itself as a work of art when turned off.

How can such a display of reactionary ire as Jones’s therefore be anything other than manufactured? This article says less about the state of art than it does about the condition of art criticism, for Jones is surely one of the greatest proponents of clickbait in his field; wait for breaking arts ‘news’ to wind him up and watch him go. This is Jeremy Clarkson with high culture pretensions. And this kind of backward-looking hectoring is exactly what provides the cultural underpinning of the kind of political conservatism that Jones himself decries. He would do better to consider culture and creativity within its many contexts, rather than fretting over what is and isn’t art-with-a-capital-A. Ω



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