Men go mad in crowds, said Charles Mackay, author of Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, but they recover their senses one by one. As if to bear him out, New Yorkers have been rushing to see a small piece of graffiti by Banksy, the famous British street artist who, clandestinely as usual, is “in residence” in New York for a month. Banksy’s latest creation was a small silhouette of the Twin Towers, out of one of which grew a golden chrysanthemum, painted on to the base of a building on Staple Street. It was not one of the artist’s best efforts, but such is his renown that people hurried to see it before it disappeared, apparently under the impression that by doing so they were demonstrating their enthusiasm for art.
Banksy is a cartoonist and social commentator whose works appear on buildings, bridges, and other constructions rather than in newspapers or in The New Yorker. He has turned himself into a Scarlet Pimpernel figure, whose aversion to public appearances has proved the best possible publicity. His work is often witty and pointed, though his choice of targets for satire is purely conventional and precisely what one might expect of a privileged member of the intellectual middle classes. Only in his manner of proceeding is he truly original. In other respects, his work seems that of a clever adolescent—one who is now approaching middle age.
The enormous interest his work arouses, disproportionate to its artistic merit, shows not that there is fashion in art, but that an adolescent sensibility is firmly entrenched in our culture. The New York Times reports that a lawyer, Ilyssa Fuchs, rushed from her desk the moment she heard about Banksy’s latest work and ran more than half a mile to see it. Would she have done so if a delicate fresco by Piero della Francesca had been discovered in Grand Central Terminal? In the modern world, art and celebrity are one. And we are all Peter Pan now: we don’t want to grow up.