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Walk past a "Heavy Plant" warning and wonder vaguely if the trees thought it was for them; if whoever put it up had enough imag...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Brooker, Banksy and Barley

Charlie Brooker may have gone a bit overboard with this article about Banksy. If you aren’t familiar with Banksy his website will tell you most of what you need to know about him and Charlie Brooker’s article will fill in the rest. Banksy started out as a graffiti artist and has branched out into other areas embracing other forms quickly, efficiently and in a very striking manner, his work is very media friendly. He is a skilled self-publicist and has essentially made himself a brand rather than an artist.

As always I agree with much of what Brooker says but he’s bordering on irrelevant here. Banksy’s background is as a graffiti artist and whilst Situationist influenced graffito had conceptual and political depth the form itself is far more based on immediate visual impact and not on profound insight and developed thinking. Warhol beat Banksy to the brand strategy by a clear three decades and Damien Hirst is probably much better at it in a far more financially gainful way so why would Banksy be so objectionable? Brooker seems to be particularly bothered by the pseudo subversive leanings of Banksy but the trouble is that cultural norms have now expanded to recognise anything remotely alternative. The knock-on effect is that to be genuinely subversive you actually have to be a subversive, making you subject to anti-terror legislation which is a bit of a frightening prospect. Not that Brooker is expecting genuinely subversive behaviour but seems to think that Banksy is trying to infer that he knows some real criminals, which he might. He does live and work in the East end of London and has done for some time.

Banksy’s work is ContentLite and style heavy but it makes extensive use of irony, something Brooker ought to be well acquainted with as he makes his living with it. You only have to read through Brooker’s article twice to see that he has badly missed the point on at least one occasion. Brooker may not like Banksy’s popular leftist anti-globalisation leanings and his association of American capitalist icons with the political activities of that country but the point is that whilst these may be shallow and poorly constructed they do point at a resistance to a cultural invasion from a country whose actions are increasingly abhorrent to the general public. Banksy might not be the sharpest tool in the box but he is at least getting involved.

Whilst popular culture and the mediatisation of everything give everyone a chance to see creative work and to be creative almost none of us are but most of us have an opinion about what creativity is and how it should be done. The modern world has made everyone a consumer and a critic. Brooker himself is most successful as a TV critic and writer who can hand out the kind of vitriol and satire on contemporary existence that makes the rest of the media check themselves against his every scribbling to ensure that they haven’t slipped too far into being Nathan Barley.

Nathan Barley is Brooker’s creation, a kind of conceptual voodoo doll for him to stick pins in, a hate figure and all too common occurrence in everyday life. Nathan Barley is a patchwork archetype of loathsome traits who doesn’t do anything in particular with his life and is agonisingly self-involved and self-important but somehow still holds influence. If you’ve been to Hoxton of a Friday night at any time in the past six years or so you will have seen hundreds of Nathan Barleys out parading themselves around. Nathan Barley became a TV series in which Brooker and Chris Morris used heavy handed irony to build the character and assassinate it, possibly in despair that the kind of narcissist that Barley represents to them is exactly the kind now being given precedence by popular culture.

I find Nathan Barley problematic because at some point just about everyone steps across the line into Barley-dom and the charge of hypocrisy is all too easy to level at Brooker himself. If you look at the unctuous Barley’s claim of being a ‘self facilitating media node’ it is far too easy to apply that definition to Brooker who writes for newspapers, publishes a website writes for and appears on TV, producing mostly parody, pastiche and criticism safely free of the need for originality.

Brooker and Morris have become unspoken media-appointed guardians of integrity – if they get to you you’ve done something wrong - but something about their output bugs me. For example Nathan Barley isn’t parody or humour, it was close enough to the nature of real life that I could barely watch it. In fact I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was watching Brooker & Morris’s self-loathing made flesh. I also had an uneasy feeling that if they didn’t continue producing this kind of material they might easily have become this kind of person, or worse still are in danger of becoming the real life Dan Ashcroft of the Nathan Barley series whose identification of the ‘New Idiots’ and articulation of their horrors sanctifies and reinforces them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that both writers have fallen into with their wallets open. It also irks me that when people like Brooker, who go out of their way to be a bit different, do something creative you end up with Nathan Barley which is more of the same but dramatised rather than flatly stated as in his other writing. Boring, barely relevant and cringingly difficult to watch.

Banksy might be a bit of a nob but show me an artist that isn’t and I guarantee you they don’t make any money from their artistic work, they probably have to write for newspapers, television and websites. When I lived and worked in London my walk to work from Old Street station took me past at least 5 of Banksy’s pieces and I was constantly noticing new ones. Let’s not mistake quantity for quality, Banksy’s work definitely isn’t of a deep and meaningful nature but it has a huge presence in contemporary culture just as Brooker does. The chief difference is that Banksy isn’t shooting his mouth off about how crap other people’s output is whilst actually failing to engage with the material he’s criticising, however pretentious and showy.


By the way I am aware of the additional layer of irony created by posting this piece of consumer criticism on a website with little or no original work, just in case you got a sudden urge to point this out to me.