Arifa Akbar: We're desperate to know everything we can about Banksy - except who exactly he is

A critical view
  • @arifa_akbar

There's a flurry of new books on Banksy. The loquaciously named Banksy: You Are an Acceptable Level of Threat and if You Were Not You Would Know About It is published in June but in the meantime, you can read the one his friend's just published, or the one a former journalist's bringing out next month.

I don't know what's led to this synergy in tributes to the street artist, but what unifies them is the paradox by which we regard him: we, his audience, seem to have an unquenchable desire to know all about him – that he once had a New York girlfriend, that he was aloof and gangly in his youth, that his publicist's from Brighton – all the voyeuristic minutiae. Yet what we don't want to know is who he is.

These latest books deliver on this. The authors of the long-winded title say they will not be uncovering his real identity. Banksy's friend, Robert Clarke, says in Seven Years with Banksy, that he has no desire to unmask the graffiti artist either. Will Ellsworth-Jones, the former Sunday Times journalist, agrees that "we all enjoy the mystery" of his anonymity in Banksy:Behind the Wall.

They're right. Who can remember the Mail on Sunday expose in 2008 featuring a photograph (which had done the rounds in various media since 2004) of an ordinary looking guy in early middle age called Robin Gunningham? This was probably Banksy, the newspaper claimed. We were so disappointed at his apparent outing that we chose to ignore it, to forget about it and go back to reading and writing about the great art hologram he has become. Even news journalists seemed to cotton on and go quiet.

We don't want Banksy unmasked. His anonymity, with its titillating edge of counter-cultural illegality, sells big-time, partly because it feeds our fantasies of cloaked superheroes. He's the Zorro of the art world, as Clarke points out. The outed Banksy is far more pedestrian so we collude in keeping the paper bag over his head.

He must keep his side of the bargain which can't be all that easy. Banksy un-outed, though, is a super-cool brand gilded by the romance of its mystery. His tag commands high prices at auctions and galleries. Celebrities lap it up. And so what? There's nothing wrong with a street artist coming in from the cold. If Banksy sells well at Lazarides and Bonhams, then Blek le Rat – his apparent inspiration – sells in similar spaces, as did Basquiat in his lifetime.

The place where a work hangs doesn't have to undermine its rawness, whether it's a millionaire's mansion or a dank foot-tunnel. It is not to knock Banksy's achievement to simply acknowledge that his commercial ambition is as sharp as a brand-savvy artist's like Damien Hirst. It's not surprising to read in Clarke's book that the young Robin (Banksy) was in awe of Hirst, returning from one of his first New York shows with stars in his eyes.

Hirst and Banksy have a lot in common, even if they appear to have chosen diametrically opposing trajectories – one grabbing the limelight, the other abjuring it. Both are brilliant showmen with an eye for spectacle, both have a knack for making money, and more importantly, both have managed to maintain their mega-fame over the decades by outdoing their past stunts. And they have deliberately inverted their identities – the graffiti artist stuck his work up in the Louvre and the Tate; meanwhile the YBA who has an army of gallerists to do his bidding, punted his own works at Sotheby's.

Latterly, both artists have been accused of selling out, Hirst, for earning huge sums of money while posing as an enfant terrible, and in the case of Banksy, well, we don't know exactly how rich and respect-able this Slim Shady's become, but we can't pretend that he's a young punk sporting a Billabong hat and a spray can.

We know as little of Banksy as we want to know – just enough to keep the romance alive – and thankfully, these latest books don't seem to give us much more than that.

From Young Turk to dirty old Millais

The Young British Artists at 50 is a picture book that shows just how far the gang has come – snapshots of Gavin Turk with his young kids, etc. It's funny how quickly a generation converts itself from punks to parents. The original "shock" merchants were the pre-Raphaelites who took Europe by storm. A Tate Britain exhibition will show us how in September. Their work abounded with "steamy sexuality" at a time when piano legs were covered up. Today's audiences might need to decode the canvas for the shocking bits. Some pointers: look out for the, um, gushingly erect sugar tumbler in Millais's Isabella and for Joseph's dirty fingernails in Christ in the House of his Parents.

Take stories as read, and anew

I wish adults read aloud to each other more often. I was sitting through the annual World Book Night celebrations at London's South Bank Centre this week, where authors very movingly read passages from novels, and I suddenly felt five years old again. I'd read many of the stories already, but I'd missed some of the beauty of the passages. I got a lump in my throat as Elif Shafak read the opening pages of Honour even though it hadn't elicited tears that early on when I'd read it. Andrea Levy put on her best Caribbean accent for Small Island and brought out the book's wicked humour that I'd hurtled past to get to the end. Reading a novel aloud might sound like the slower way to experience it, but ironically, it's a faster way into its imaginary world. It amplifies the experience. There's a special kind of pleasure, and absorption, that comes, and the last time I'd felt this was probably at primary school, as James and the Giant Peach unwound before my ears.