A Banksy wall painting showing Israeli border policeman and Palestinian in a pillow fight. (AP/Dusan Vranic)

Why do we care who Banksy is?

Last month, DJ Goldie might have revealed the elusive street artist's secret identity. But so what?



Noah Charney
July 30, 2017 6:00PM (UTC)

It would appear that the cat is at least peeking its shaking head out of the bag. This week the world-famous graffiti artist and generally ingeniously naughty boy about town who goes by the name Banksy was accidentally “outed” by one of his friends, the musician Goldie. As reported in Artnet, DJ Goldie was a guest on a podcast when, in the flow of conversation, his host brought up Banksy’s popularity and strong sales record. To this, Goldie said “Give me a bubble letter and put it on a t-shirt and write ‘Banksy’ on it. We can sell it now. No disrespect to Robert, I think he is a brilliant artist. I think he has flipped the world of art over.”

Oops.

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Just being slipped a first name wouldn’t necessarily blow open the covert operations. But Banksy is so well-known, and his hidden identity has been a much-debated, added allure of his work, that much progress has been made by journalists with their detective hats on. It means that Goldie’s slip is actually a confirmation of what those in the know have suspected, and it matches perfectly with their supposition.

In 2008, Robin Gunningham was “outed” as Banksy. But it didn’t stick, and rumors that it was someone else continued. In September 2016, journalist Craig Williams turned “True Detective” and mapped out appearances of Banksy’s graffiti around the globe — he found that there was a striking correlation of Banksy works in cities where the trip-hop band Massive Attack was performing. This discovery shifts the focus onto Robert Del Naja, part of the two-man group and one of the most praised and influential acts in music (two of their albums were listed among the 50 best albums of all time). Del Naja worked as a street artist in the 1980s, and has publicly denied that he is Banksy . . . but of course, he would, wouldn’t he?

Goldie’s accidental dropping of the name Robert (he is a known friend of Del Naja’s) then seemed to only confirm existing suspicions and corroborate a reasonable amount of evidence. On six occasions over the last 12 years, Banksy’s work has freshly appeared on the walls of cities just before or after Massive Attack gigs. For example, Massive Attack performed in Los Angeles on Sept. 26, 2006, days before a major Banksy exhibit opened there, while the band performed in Toronto on May 7, 2010, with a new Banksy mural appearing there on May 14. It sounds like an excerpt from a police procedural, where a serial killer is tracked because the murders take place whenever the circus is in town. It is also reminiscent of the sort of investigative detective work that was used to “out” Italian author Elena Ferrante, who had been writing pseudonymously until journalist Claudio Gatti followed the money from her publisher to peel back the veil, much to the dismay of many readers, who felt that an author should have the right to anonymity. An article by lawyer Edgar Tijhuis in The European Review suggested that legal rights might have been violated in the exposure of Ferrante.

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The art world loves to theorize over secrets, and guessing at Banksy’s identity — whether he might even be a collective of several artists — has been a long-term game. But what does this say about us and about the art world? And if Del Naja is Banksy, are we any better off for knowing?

We humans dislike secrets. Or rather, we love secrets, if they will be revealed to us after a period of wondering, guessing, inquiry. A secret which we cannot know frustrates. A secret with a promised, or promising revelation is a delight that seems hard-wired into us. Figuring out something that, we assume, someone has proactively tried to screen from us feels like a satisfying “gotcha!” moment. In this case, though evidence points to its accuracy, Del Naja of course denied it, stating “Rumors of my secret identity are greatly exaggerated. It would be a good story, but sadly not true. Wishful thinking, I think.”

He has a point. It is wishful thinking (what a cool truth it would be!), but there are psychological reasons why this identity makes sense, more so than previous suspects. It sounds far more satisfying and resonant for a famous artist in one genre (music) to have a secret identity as a famous artist in another (street art). From a psychological point of view, it is easier to imagine a great artist moonlighting across genres, because he would be satisfied with the public accolades for music, and would not necessarily feel the need to reap more laudations for street art. A more “anonymous” person, like Robin Gunningham, who has no public persona if he is not Banksy, is more likely to desire public approbation for his work, since he is not receiving it in other aspects of his life.

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This runs parallel to the psychology behind art forgers that I explored in my recent book, for whoever Banksy is, he is a sort of forger of identity as an artist, creating a masked persona that his public picks apart by looking at his art. Famous forgers are only famous because they were eventually caught or, as happens with surprising frequency, they outed themselves. They grew frustrated with their work fooling the experts, but receiving no credit and praise for themselves as the artists (the little detail that they were committing fraud seems not to have bothered many of them, nor stopped them from coming forward). There might be scores of master forgers still out there, whose identity remains unknown because their egos never got in the way — they were content with the private victory of praise for their creations, and did not need praise themselves. But this goes against general human nature. If we know a secret, we wish to reveal it. If we learn of a secret, we wish to know it. If we are the secret, we want someone else to find out.

However, if a successful artist dabbled in forgery (as did Baroque master Luca Giordano), if that artist were already lauded for his art, then the incentive to reveal himself as a forger is greatly diminished. Thus revealing Del Naja as Banksy, even though it objectively appears to be true, results in a denial, not a smiling “Ah, you got me!” Learning his identity is not an open game, the winner of which receives a toaster oven (or a Massive Attack boxed set). The hidden identity of Banksy is an ongoing game that is not meant to end with a reveal. It is part of the culture of graffiti art, in which tags, or secret names, are used, rather than real names (since graffiti is a crime in most countries).

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There is also the flip side to this story, one that was raged over in the outing of Elena Ferrante, since the search for her identity has been seen as a sort of Italian misogyny, wondering if a woman could really be so great a writer, thinking that a man might be behind the pseudonym. Do creators who make their work available to the public, and earn good money in doing so, have a “right” to keep their identity hidden? And in reverse, do we consumers have a “right” to know who really made what we consume?

In the 19th century, writers penning texts pseudonymously were largely left to do so. At least, until late 20th century literary sleuths sought to unpack their real identities, as part of a rising academic interest in analyzing a creator’s work through the creator’s personal biography. But in today’s reveal-all society, in which we feel that we can get access to people we admire by following them on social media, in the entertainment news, and by drawing parallels between their creative output and what we assume is part of their personal lives, we humans of the 2010s feel an often incorrect understanding of public figures (based not on verified fact, but on rumor and public or social media statements, which may or may not have anything to do with reality). We want to “get to know” celebrities as they “really” are, a byproduct of reality TV and the voluntary intrusiveness of social media.

In order to feed this hunger, celebrities offer bits and pieces: Perhaps Justin Bieber will tweet that his favorite color is blue, because this satisfies his fans (never mind that his actual favorite color might be red). Feeling that we “know” public figures now feels like a sort of basic right of the consumer. We expect facts to flesh them out as people, and we are unlikely to worry too much about whether the facts we are given are correct or not (consider the bizarrely ubiquitous belief in a story about Richard Gere and gerbils, if you need an example).

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I’m wearing a Banksy t-shirt as I write: a print of Mona Lisa with a bazooka mounted on her shoulder. My admiration of Banksy’s impish creativity is neither diminished nor augmented by knowing his identity, though I admit to now thinking that Del Naja is even cooler than I considered him before. The art remains the same, but I tip my hat to the illusionism of maintaining the Banksy façade.

Personally, I like enduring mysteries, hidden secrets. The sort of art history I study is iconography, the analysis of symbols, and the works that fascinate me most are those for which no one knows the answer. Give me Giovanni Bellini’s “Sacred Allegory,” one of the most puzzling paintings ever made, with nary a reasonable deciphering proffered, and I’ll happily stare at it for months. The moment a secret is revealed, no matter how engaging, there’s something of a deflation. The world could use more unsolved mysteries.

Keep on denying, Mr. Del Naja. Whether or not you are Banksy, I doff my hat to you.

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Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Anonymity Art Banksy Editor's Picks Elena Ferrante Massive Attack Psychology Secrets

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