Geniuses Steal

"...they say you really die the last time anybody says your name"

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We talk a lot about art in this newsletter. In fact, the last one, which was for subscribers only, was called “All Art Is Complete Horseshit,” and it created what I’d like to imagine is a lively debate. The salient points were that art in and of itself really has no value until someone views it and imbues it (I will concede that this sounds like an exceedingly lame Missy Elliot lyric) with their own experience. Therefore, art, on its own, has no merit at all beyond being a personal jerkoff for the creator(s). You can all read about it here if you’d like.

I came at that particular entry from the position of being an artist. However, I’m also someone who consumes art and has opinions on it, which are sometimes very easily influenced by either vague irrelevant truths or by the existing opinions of others, and those people don’t even have to necessarily be people I respect. It’s wild. 

For example: when I first heard of Chumbawumba, it was as most of us did: via their 2002 single, Tubthumping (side note: 2002?! I would have bet my life that song was like 1996 or something. Weird [further note: a reader, Dan, has pointed out that I googled the remaster or something. Tubthumping apparently came out in 1997]). I was, to put it mildly, unimpressed. However, when I talked to people, I discovered that Chumbawumba is actually a widely respected old anarcho punk band with ties to Crass, among others, and it kinda changed my whole perception. The art itself didn’t get any better, but suddenly, when recontextualized as part of a ‘thing’ I respect, I no longer thought it was dumb, and, uh…I don’t know how I feel about that, honestly. 

First, I still don’t love the song. Secondly, it didn’t inspire me to go seek out their other stuff and actually discover if I had any genuine love or respect for Chumbawumba outside their basic second hand reputation, but knowing a little more context DID make me appreciate Tubthumping just a bit more, which is pretty fucking wishy washy and lame. What complicates this is that I feel like it takes a LOT of energy to go from not liking something to liking it, and that liking things is rewarding whereas hating things is generally a waste of energy. 

There’s a whole article to be done on this last sentence. “What about Trump?” you may say in response. “Is hating HIM a waste of energy?” Kinda, it is. The thing about dealing with something like a Trump or the cops or Darth Vader or whatever, is that sure, you’re gonna hate them, but the main emotion that drives you should still be your love of what they oppose, right? So, “I hate that motherfucker” is definitely a pretty reasonable reaction when he rolls back legal protection of trans people at the start of Pride month, or backs a series of organizations famous for murdering black people wantonly, for example, BUT it’s important to remember that the reason you feel that rage is because, at a BARE minimum, you love the idea of justice for all folks, and the freedom that we’ve been taught that every American is supposed to have, and therefore any attack on that is a de facto attack on that which we love. You love the idea of humanity and the experience of existing in a free society and you don’t want that to be taken away from any of your fellow Americans. But if the gasoline going into your engine is hate, you’re burning and breathing poison. You don’t have to be an activist or a champion of any specific fight if that’s not your thing, but if you’re fighting with hate, no matter what side you’re on, you’re on the dark side. There is better fuel that will keep you healthier and more focused. Promise. Anyway. End rant. 

SO, with that being said, I kinda have a weird relationship with the idea of no longer thinking Tubthumping sucks. Even though the song didn’t change at all, hearing some opinions and facts and the like made me appreciate it more. But there’s also the other side, which is more common (because, remember, it’s much easier to hate something than to love it). 

There are plenty of artists I can’t enjoy the art of anymore for various reasons. Some are people I know who I think are just jerks, and some are like Bill Cosby or Michael Jackson. It’s easy as shit to dismiss someone based on some kinda flaw. Granted, in these last two cases we’re talking about some pretty big flaws, but in the first, some person being a jerk to me shouldn’t warrant me no longer loving their art, but it often does. And I guess that’s okay? 

I’ve had people tell me that I’ve done shitty things that have made it so any music I’m associated with is impossible to listen to. One recent experience like this involved someone saying I was openly mocking a disabled person in front of a room full of people. I hope I don’t need to tell you all that I would NEVER in a million years do that, but the person who brought this up told me that he had seen it with his own eyes and that I’m a total piece of shit and fuck me. And what can I say? I cannot fathom that I’d ever do anything that could even be construed as what this guy is talking about, particularly, since this ostensibly happened at one of our shows, where I’m hyper vigilant about not being dismissive of, much less abrasive to anyone unless they’re being overtly abrasive to me. I don’t understand how this guy could possibly think he saw what he said he saw, but then again, if that’s what’s in his memory, then fuck, I wouldn’t like me either, I guess. I get that. 

I bring this up not because I’m looking for any validation or anything, but because it’s the worst example I can personally think of involving me, and even though I steadfastly insist there’s no way that what that guy remembers happened as it did, if that’s what he remembers, I get why he wouldn’t listen to any records I’m on. That makes sense to me. And this brings me to Banksy. 

Y’all know Banksy. He’s either a crackpot or a genius or a guy from Massive Attack or he’s actually some kind of collective of people or just a random guy that happens to have, at one time, captured the zeitgeist and then gotten weird blowback for it. I dunno. Wherever you stand on Banksy, hear me out here. 

When I first was introduced to Banksy, I thought he was cool. I liked that a medium like street art could capture the minds of so many people and that this guy seemed to be working from a uniquely populist leftist point of view, using disparate artistic techniques and methodologies, as well as humor to make things that read quickly as “a Banksy.” It’s tempting for me to throw in a kind of a couched dig at this “it was a simple and obvious rhetoric, but…” but that’s just fucked up, because A) I’d never seen any shit like that before, especially not elevated to the level that Banksy had been elevated to B) I don’t actually think it WAS simple and obvious rhetoric before he popularized it, and C) I thought it was just totally kickass.

And here’s the thing: so did everybody.

‘Who is Banksy” is still a million dollar mystery to this day, and the idea of this wildly successful, yet anonymous artist doing illegal subversive street art and installations, being classified as a public menace and continuously thumbing his nose at the very fart sniffing gallery people who attempt to elevate him is cool as shit. He changed culture. He literally, I believe, made street art kinda quasi legal in his home town of Bristol, and that’s pretty cool in its own right. In short, an anonymous, wildly talented subversive who has captured the minds of pop culture and changed the entire platform of illegal art (itself, the coolest combination of two words that there is) is, in my mind, a cool guy. 

But something weird happened. 

Now, perhaps I’m TOTALLY off base on this, but I don’t recall artfully done political statements being a galvanizing thing in street art before Banksy blew up. I remember people writing, like “Free Mumia!” or “Trust Jesus” (the most-up tagger in the world at one point) as like a radical scrawl, and I remember really wildly artistic pieces and murals existing with unique local flare all over the world, but I do NOT recall a lot of the kind of thing Banksy popularized before he did it. 

Right now I feel compelled to defend myself and point out that I AM in fact aware of artists like Alexandre Orion (who I think is fuuuuucking magical too), but I was NOT when I first heard of Banksy. And it’s fucked up that just talking about someone that everyone on earth at some point thought was cool, puts me on the defensive. That’s sort of the point, I guess, but let’s continue. 

I don’t know when I first started noticing it, but the backlash that came for Banksy was slow, insidious and very, very intellectual (by kinda dumbass Gen X and mostly millennial journalism standards). I don’t recall a big denouncement of what Banksy had done. I didn’t see any refutation of his work, but I noticed that he started being mentioned as a punchline, like in AV Club articles or in Pitchfork reviews. Banksy was suddenly kinda trotted out as a casual example of an obvious hack when discussing some other art, be it music or lit or visual or whatever, if you’re making what these gatekeepers perceived to be a saccharine political statement, you were Banksy. 

Banksy then started getting kind of dragged on Twitter like this. He became synonymous with this idea of like burning a dollar as an act of stupid defiance, or whatever you wanna say. Smug people who hang out together in New York (from what I could tell) collectively decided that Banksy didn’t just suck, but he sucked so bad that even treating him like a proper subject was beneath them. These journalists and online comedians (and I hope to god I don’t have to point out any irony here based on those two job descriptions) decided that Banksy was beneath them. Not just a little bit, but a lot. Banksy: the butt of all jokes. The obvious hack. The shitty artist. 

But I had never seen anything like what he had done. 

However, that didn’t stop these brain worms from getting to me. I found myself kind of decrying Banksy here and there, in the style that I’d learned from people whose output I have vastly less respect for than Banksy’s. I found myself making him into the example of the “Obvious Artist” in my stories, as though I had some handy cadre of vastly more talented artists that I knew the catalogs of and was just eager to promote, somehow, at Banksy’s expense. 

I did not. I knew Banksy and I knew Alexandre Orion. And I knew, like Trust Jesus and Agent and Sole and Empower One and local Chicago guys, but those graffiti guys are not AT ALL the same thing as what we’re talking about here. 

So, at a certain point, I just kinda succumbed to the group think aspect of this, never mind that I didn’t personally know anyone doing anything cooler, and for that matter, I didn’t really know anyone personally who had derisive opinions about Banksy. I just assumed that I was missing something and that all these people were right and fuck me, I should probably get on board with this idea that Banksy is an obvious hack, otherwise I’d look like a rube.

But then one day, I don’t remember what it was...was it Dismaland, or the Elephant In the Room or that New York tour where he infuriated a bunch of rich people or what, but I remember being like “wait...I actually think this is cool and I guess I don’t understand what the criticism is here. This shit just seems cool, and I’ve been just kinda blindly following the opinions of people I don’t even necessarily respect very much in a way that is an exact target of what Banksy is kind of attempting to dismantle through his work. Fer fuckssakes! I had become the worst kind of asshole...not a “make fun of someone’s disability in front of people” level of asshole, mind you, but a smug dick who finds it easier to dislike things than to like them.

It’s the Han Solo principle:

Luke is a pud because Luke believes in things and it makes him whiny and obvious. Han believes in nothing, and therefore, he’s unflappable. If you believe in nothing, you can’t be rattled by any of it. But I’m not Han Solo. I DO believe in things. I like things that pique my interests and I like things that do that for other people too. I find it vastly more rewarding to love something than to dismiss it. I find the idea of calling someone a poser because they’re new to something to be just fucking mean. But here I was, for NO GOOD REASON, kinda chuckling when anyone said they thought shit by Banksy was cool, because it’s been established by a cadre of people I don’t give a fuck about that that’s the proper attitude to have about Banksy. And THAT, my friends, is being a poser. Me. I’m talking about me here. I was being a poser by pretending that I hated something that I didn’t. It’s truly shameful.

So I took my poser ass to task and nowadays, I try to ask questions when people are critical of something I like, no matter if it’s Banksy or the song “Let It Go.” I like Banksy. I think he’s revolutionary and cool. I think his shit still holds up. I think he’s maligned unfairly by hordes of people without 1/1000th of his talent because he’s accomplished any true artist’s ultimate dream: Namely, he’s created art that lives on its own and is completely free from artist association. He’s internationally famous and he’s rich as shit and he has refused to become any sort of public figure, and just sits back and makes art and takes money. That shit is, in no uncertain terms, dope as hell. 

I like Banksy. I think he’s awesome. Please feel free to tell me why I’m wrong in the comments. I promise to listen and give any reply critical thought. But, if there’s just one of you out there who can relate to what I’m saying here, maybe not about Banksy, but about anything, then maybe consider turning it around and openly appreciating something again, even if it’s Phil Collins (who is also dope, by the way). Love is way cooler than detached shittiness 100% of the time. 

Oh, and also, please exit through the gift shop and subscribe to this newsletter if you haven’t already. It helps me to eat and continue to be Banksy, who I actually am. 


Love y’all!