In City Journal Dalrymple examines the work of Banksy, a British so-called street artist who has apparently acquired some renown in the art world with his pointed, unauthorized paintings on public property. In one of those instances where criticism is made more powerful by a willingness to recognize non-prevailing virtues, Dalrymple acknowledges Banksy’s talent:
He is highly intelligent and undoubtedly witty. Some of his productions make you smile, and others make you laugh; his implicit criticisms of society can be trenchant, especially if you know the British context. He can sometimes suggest quite a lot with economical means.
There follow several specific examples of what Dalrymple considers succinct, witty works of satirical depth. Nevertheless, these aspects are outweighed by other, more damning characteristics:
Consider the cover of his book Wall and Piece, now in its 37th printing in the United Kingdom alone, which shows one of his most famous images: a young man, his baseball cap worn backward and his mouth masked, in the pose of a thrower of a Molotov cocktail but throwing a bouquet of flowers. The image suggests what is clearly untrue—namely, that such young men are generally peaceful. You wouldn’t survive long on London’s meaner streets if you took this suggestion seriously. Inside the book, by the way, Banksy has characteristically attempted to have his cake and eat it, too, inserting a statement that reads, “Against his better judgement Banksy has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.”
Despite his wit, Banksy’s sensibility is both conventional and adolescent. Evidence of his conformism is that all his targets are easy and of the sort chosen by the lumpenintelligentsia (which does not, again, mean that they are necessarily unworthy)…
This worldview is that of the eternal adolescent, ever eager to shock the grown-ups with his supposedly contrary views, cleverly and uncompromisingly expressed. Truth comes a distant second to effect.
Michael Gove, make it compulsory to study this essay in schools.
“Lumpenintelligentsia” is now my favorite word, and I will try to sneak it into conversations whenever possible. It’s so typically and delightfully Dalrymplian, in that it captures something so instantly recognizable–and does it so elegantly–that you can’t help but wonder why no-one has thought to describe it like that before.
I’ve always used this word . . . i thought I made it up! I’m a proud flag flying Darlympian since 2005. . .
Great kid, just don’t call him Tony.
I’m joking-ish… May you fly your flag with pride.