SUBSTANCE AND THE FAME THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME
There’s this artist. His name is Banksy. Yeah, you’ve heard of him – he’s famous, almost to the point of tired cliché. His book is a bestseller. He has legions of fans talking about his work on websites. His Warhol-inspired Kate Moss portrait fetched $194,000. If someone finds one of his works on an alleyway-wall of their crappy warehouse, the property value rockets by 10 per cent. But the truly remarkable thing about him is that nobody has any idea who he is. This is no mean feat. Among his artistic achievements are a vision of paradise stencilled onto a security wall in Palestine and tagging the inside of an elephant enclosure in Barcelona Zoo. Bold public creative expressions, executed under cover of night, that leave an admiring public scratching their heads. He even made a documentary about himself that got nominated for an Academy Award, and the world is still in the dark. Some can hardly bear the suspense. A friend of mine – an English comedian living in London – was at a fairly dignified art gallery opening once. A respected art expert and critic approached him with a tentative step and cautious look in his eye. “Are you an artist?” he asked. “No,” replied my friend. “Oh,” said the critic, disappointedly. “Why, is that a problem?” asked my mate. “Well, it’s just I thought you might have been Banksy.” The idea of doing something without taking credit for it has become downright unfashionable. On the surface (as it so often is) celebrity seems to be a far more popular notion. In fact, with the rise of reality entertainment and Instagram ‘careers’, where success at life is measured in the baffling metric of views and clicks, being famous without actually doing anything is the ideal. Yet doing the inverse – that is, doing a significant something while eschewing fame – now that is something truly special. That’s why I like Banksy. Despite using the most modern artistic techniques, he harkens back to the historic power of mystery. To this day, Jack the Ripper tours are a top contender for the most popular tourist attraction in London. People walk through the back alleys on guided tours hoping to be terrified. Countless books, movies, investigations and conspiracy theories have been born out of the scariest detail of his horrific campaign of murder but nobody ever knew who he was. The Scarlet Pimpernel was such a commanding theatrical character because his mystery gave him power. Superman, Spider-man and Batman are superheroes not because they can fly, shoot webs or live in a cave/bachelor pad, but because their world remains oblivious to their mild-mannered alter egos. Contrary to what the gossip columnists, paparazzi and reality TV mainstays would have us believe, there is nothing we love more than a secret that remains untold. Substance can be found in deeds that do not beg for applause. Substance lives in accomplishment without accolade. Though anonymity needn’t be spectacular. Sometimes it’s at its best when it is unremarkable. There was once an Aussie Rules footballer. His name was Peter Hudson. He played full forward for Hawthorn between 1967 and 1977 and was widely regarded as a freak. So good was Hudson that if it weren’t for the fact he was registered in the same league as everyone else, he would have been in a league of his own. Around the time that he was reinvigorating the Hawthorn Football Club’s match day attendances, a nearby church was having the opposite problem. In a topical attempt to get bottoms on pews, the local vicar put up a banner outside the church that posed the question, ‘What would you do if Jesus came to Hawthorn today?’ People pondered this rhetorical gambit for a couple of days until an unidentified genius answered, ‘Move Peter Hudson to centre half forward.’ This is one of my favourite jokes of all time. Not because it’s funny, cheeky, simple yet slightly inspired. But because I will probably never know who made it. I hope I never do. For the same reason I hope I never know who Banksy is – there just aren’t enough superheroes these days. n
SUBSTANCE CAN BE FOUND IN DEEDS THAT DO NOT BEG FOR APPLAUSE. THOUGH ANONYMITY NEEDN’T BE SPECTACULAR.