What is Banksy’s real name? The eternal question… answered?
Banksy once said, “If you want to say something and have people listen then you have to wear a mask. If you want to be honest then you have to live a lie.” Unfortunately for Banksy, people like to put a face to a name, we’ve liked putting faces to names since we’ve had names; and last week a ‘geoprofiling’ study conducted by scientists at London’s Queen Mary’s University claimed to have put a named Banksy, by way of a real name: Robin Gunningham.
This time there was not photographic evidence of the “Scarlett Pimpernel of art” as there had been of Gunningham in previous revelations from the Daily Mail in 2008. Instead it was cold, hard science that seems to have gotten Banksy in the end: the university says it has ‘tagged’ Banksy by using publicly available information to identify a pattern between the locations where his artworks most regularly appear and an address closely affiliated with Gunningham – the ‘hot spots’ being a pub, playing fields, a residential address in Bristol and three addresses in London.
Since the early 2000s Banksy’s work has been going up exponentially in value, the phenomenon even being dubbed “the Banksy effect”, but what are the possible implications of Banksy’s identity being revealed? Is there a Gunningham effect? Did we buy in to his mystery, and if so, literally? If we know Banksy’s name is his work still as appealing? His anonymity certainly added to the miraculous nature of his work, that with such lucidity, surmised the irony of situations and appeared out of nowhere by, apparently, nobody. He was an omnipotent, objective messenger; now, he’s Robin Gunningham from Bristol Cathedral School. But why would him being Robin Gunningham affect the price of, or interest in, his work?
In an article for artnet Matthew Bown wrote, “The founder of modern economics, Alfred W. Marshall, believed that no “systematic explanation” was possible for the price of art and other rare goods, “ and that “Galenson’s thesis in Artistic Capital is that top prices are paid not for branded items but for an inherent quality of some artworks which he terms “innovation.”
Normally, innovative or not, the name of an artist is a big part the selling point; it must be authenticated. But Banksy’s innovation has been his total anonymity, including his own non-profit authentication organization Pest Control, the only organization that can authenticate his works – which happens to reduce the number of people he need risk reveal himself to. Even his infamous stencil-style, that has made his work so recognizable, came from the need for anonymity – he saw the stenciled serial number of the rubbish truck he was hiding under from the police, and soon realized this new technique took far less time than freehand, which in turn allowed him to become both more prolific and more recognizable.
In 2015 The Anonymous Show was done as an experiment, where the buyer didn’t get any authentication for the works available at the show to buy; no signature, no name, no face, just the art work, in an attempt to find out whether purchasing is about the art, or the artist. This, now very familiar idea, of ‘the art’ and ‘the artist’ came about in the renaissance, where the concept of the ‘individual genius’ would begin to separate the artist from the work with the likes of Leonardo and Michelangelo; where works freely roamed between religious and secular settings, sold in the secular not just on the merit of the artists capabilities, but his notoriety, his name, his hype.
All of this hype, Banksy’s ‘individual genius’, can’t have been founded around Banksy’s pseudonym, and that alone, surely? On February 22 2007, a day after Sotheby’s London sold three of Banky’s works way above their estimates (into the six figures) Banksy updated his website with an image of an auction house, with bidders in the auction room vying for a picture with the words “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit” written on it. If a reaction like that wont won’t put buyers off the individual genius of his art (and it hasn’t) I very much doubt a perfectly innocuous name like Robin Gunningham will.
In the same artnet article, Matthew Brown wrote, “The rituals of the market are not camouflage or a come-on, they are of the essence; and that prices themselves are “cultural entities,” that is to say, they have what Velthuis terms “symbolic meanings … buyers value artworks according to the “proximity” to their creator.” So, do we potentially feel even closer to Banksy now we know he may not be some omniscient messenger from the gods and in fact a regular guy from Bristol? And are therefore, more or less likely to buy his work? Again, for the majority, I doubt it.
Besides, Banksy’s paranoia about anonymity has never been about money – he’ll create works of art on things as transient as sand; the problem with the revelation of his identity, is that Banksy’s pseudonym has allowed him the anonymous space in which create; and so the effect of a lack of anonymity is more the issue than the revelation of his identity. Total anonymity allowed Banksy to create work without repercussions, travel without being followed, work without paparazzi or police tip-offs, which when you’re frequently creating works of art in highly tensile environments, is probably very important. So, the issue (perhaps) is that the output of his work could be suppressed by his lack of anonymity and this is what could have an affect on the art market prices. Whether a dearth of his work would increase or decrease the price is unknown; but the rarer and more coveted a piece, usually, the more expensive. Meaning his revealed identity could, in a round about way, have a surprising effect on the price of his art just by preventing him from creating more.
Though it seems unlikely that Gunningham is not Banksy, as Banksy’s lawyers reportedly contacted the university in regards to the wording of the press release (which has now been withdrawn), there is still that very small possibility that Robin Gunningham is not Banksy, and I think Banksy would appreciate us running with that for a second. But if he wasn’t Banksy, why would he not come out and say so? You might wonder. You might then wonder, whether a man of such great cunning, intelligence and wit such as Banksy, would not see a benefit in Gunningham being identified as him – it keeps his true identity anonymous and would probably just require the gift of a painting to persuade Gunningham to keep up the act – this is all supposition of course, though, there’s no denying it would be fun to play Banksy for a while, and there’s no denying Banksy wants to stay anonymous. Also, while we’re rolling with supposition: there is always the possibility he’s a she.
As it is important that Banksy’s real name remains a mystery for him to continue creating works as he does, for the love of Banksy as Banksy, for actually not wanting to know Banksy’s real name, I choose not to believe he’s Robin Gunningham; and I hope that, much like life on other planets, we will never know this one for sure.