You don't tug on Superman's cape
You don't spit into the wind
You don't pull the mask off the ol' Lone Ranger
And you don't mess around with Jim
--From “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” by Jim Croce
It wasn’t on the scale of say the unmasking of Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, but the revelation that internationally famous and anonymous art star Banksy is a 34-year-old artist named Robin Gunningham made a big splash in England for a little while. (An alleged photo of the alleged Gunningham from 2004 appears above.) Banksy outings have come and gone before, but this one looks like its going to stick. In the United States, where Banksy’s relatively unknown, the revelation matches the anticlimactic conclusion of the “Deep Throat” mystery when Watergate-era Deputy Director of the FBI William Mark Felt, Sr. finally stepped forward. “Who?” most people said, and still do. Within the last year, Felt’s name was the answer to a Jeopardy! question. All three contestants were stumped. When even Jeopardy! challengers can’t recall your name, you know you’ve been tossed onto the scrapheap of history. Gunningham seems poised for a similar fate.
Banksy played the outlaw in creating art that mixed the conventions of high art with the street art of graffiti. Personally, I always enjoyed the humor of such works as the mural of a child frisking soldier painted on the West Bank wall in 2007 as part of a series showing the cruelty of the restrictive barrier. Banksy’s humor always had a nice edge to it, skirting the fringe of anarchy without crossing the line. I wonder if those who’ve called for Banksy’s arrest for destruction of property over the years will now come after Gunningham. Those “illegal” images, of course, have sold for millions of dollars and have allowed some institutions “blessed” by Banksy’s handiwork to continue operating with that unexpected revenue. Robin Gunningham seems more like Robin Hood in that light, but seen from a different light Banksy seems like a better-promoted Damien Hirst with a better gimmick than embalming sharks and cows. If Hirst could wear a mask and cape, I’m sure he would, especially if it meant another big payday.
The most interesting question of the whole Banksy unmasking to me is what the future holds for the artist. Banksy sold himself as a brand name for acceptable anarchy, a criminal with a heart who never really hurt anyone, like the subject of Bouquet Toss (above). For many, Banksy seemed a Che Guevara with a stencil, fighting the revolution one wall at a time. People pictured Banksy as some poor kid with artistic talent fighting against the establishment that excluded him from the conventional routes to greatness. The reality that Gunningham grew up upper-middle class, went to art school, associated with other young artists in the gallery scene, and calculatedly came up with his famous alter ego kills the romantic illusion that was Banksy. Banksy always did seem more like a comic book hero than a practicing artist, which accounted for a large part of his appeal to the young. If Gunningham continues to thrive as an artist, then the whole Banksy phase will one day seem like a great, inventive prologue. If Gunningham fades into the shadows, however, we’ll always wonder why Banksy was necessary—for Gunningham to find unearned fame or for the public to accept Gunningham’s art under false pretenses.