Shock, awe and Banksy


My friend, Marjolyn, was reading The Drawing Lesson when she received the following in the mail from Canadian painter Robert Genn. It captures his interaction with the audience at a speaking engagement. He has graciously given me permission to reproduce it here.

My state of confusion

August 3, 2010

Dear Marjolyn,

“You don’t understand, Mr. Genn,” said a tall, acerbic gentleman who rustled a chocolate wrapper as he spoke. He had the full attention of the auditorium. “Art is not about light and shade any more, or drawing, or composition, or little pictures of landscapes. That’s dead,” he said. “Art is now about shock and awe and protest and making a statement. The greatest artist living today is Banksy. Have you heard of Banksy, Mr. Genn?”

I allowed sufficient time so he might begin to think he had me. The audience sat nervously, as if an IED was about to go off. Then I said I knew Banksy’s work and had been following his career.

Banksy grim reaper in boat“Who’s Banksy?” whispered a small woman in the front row. Since the question was directed at me, and I was the one who had the mike, I told them Banksy is the guy who arrives quietly by night in various big cities and puts up fresh graffiti, generally in the form of life-sized stencils such as a valise-carrying businessman with a sign that says, “Will work for idiots.” Another of Banksy’s images is a stern policeman leading a muzzled dog that happens to be made of pink balloons. The gentleman sat down, giving me the look of one prepared to take on new knowledge.

“Some property owners get upset when they arrive in the morning and see what’s been done to their wall,” I said. “Some will have someone come and paint over the Banksy art. On the other hand, some Banksys are put under Plexi to protect them from defacement. Some are put under 24-hour paramilitary guard. One property owner reportedly took down his Banksyed wall and sold it to an art gallery for a couple of hundred grand.”

The audience was now noticeably squirming. A guy said, “It’s bullshit.” He said it just loud enough for everyone to hear. Scattered laughter rippled.

“But is it art?” asked a girl in a yellow frock.

“The world of art,” I said, “is big enough for all flags to fly.” I decided to invite another mind into the discussion: “Andy Warhol said, ‘Art is anything you can get away with.'”

The acerbic gentleman stood to his feet. This was good, I thought. It would be nice to give him the last word on the subject. “What you are encouraging these people to do,” he said, “is to get away with making crap.”

I’m sure there were some people who had to agree.

Best regards,

Robert

P.S.: “Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great goddess?” (Ludwig van Beethoven)

Esoterica: So much of the art that many of us like to make is “skilled” (for lack of a better word) art. For most, it’s difficult to do. Sure it can be done, but it’s difficult to do well. Skilled art may take a few years of private effort, studentship, technique development and maybe even apprenticeship. Shock and awe art takes imagination and courage.

More Banksy

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About Mary E. Martin

Mary E. Martin grew up in Toronto, Canada. After earning an Honors Degree in History at the University of Toronto, she graduated with her law degree from Queens University, Kingston, Ontario. In 1973, she was called to the Bar of Ontario and began the general practice of law in Toronto, with emphasis on real estate, wills and estates and elder-care law. This law practice of more than 30 years was a great inspiration for The Osgoode Trilogy ("Conduct in Question," "Final Paradox" and "A Trial of One.") Her fourth novel, “The Drawing Lesson,” will be the first in the next trilogy, provisionally entitled “The Trilogy of Rmembrance.” She is also a photographer particularly with respect to her travels. She has had two commercial photography shows. Married in 1973, she and her husband live in Toronto. They have three adult children.
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