Banksy and other false gods

Banksy and other false gods

The artist Banksy has long been venerated by the chattering classes for his “daring” and “provocative” work. For many people, particularly those on the Left, Banksy hails from the French tradition of Situationism, of transforming radical ideas into street art, in order to challenge the Establishment and to awaken the lumpen proletariat from its consumerist slumber.

But not everyone is impressed. On the Kent coast, Folkestone has recently been host to the works of Bansky. The town, which has improved greatly in recent years, now has a creative quarter and a literary festival. So you would think that Folkestone, like Margate or Whitstable, would be a haven for creative souls who adore Banksy and his ilk. Yet last month a piece of graffiti purporting to be a Banksy was defaced by an unknown man, just 72 hours after it had been put up.

With its proximity to Calais and the continent, east Kent is the heartland of Ukip populism, which mistrusts much that is “metropolitan” and “liberal”. So while it receives migrants from France, it also has migrants from London (myself included). Hence the tension between plain-talking natives who see Banksy as a pretentious egotist and ex-Londoners who marvel at his “challenging” work.

When the graffiti first emerged, it was unclear as to whether it was a real Banksy. A spokesman from the local Creative Foundation told the Folkestone Herald: “If it’s a Banksy, it’s brilliant. And if it’s not, it’s humorous and good to see.”

How strange that people who regard themselves as radical should idolise a figure unthinkingly, to worship the hand of the master, to treat someone with such fawning reverence.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued – and, my word, did he argue – that the problem with European civilisation was that, while it had superficially spurned Christianity, it had retained Christian values such as good and evil. The idolisation of Banksy is an example of how Christian values survive undetected. Much fury was directed at the man who defaced the graffiti in Folkestone. This shows that people who regard themselves as progressive and radical will end up making their own idols – and denouncing those they regard as iconoclasts.

Contrary to his public image, Nietzsche was a delicate soul and an amusing character. He disrupted dinner parties where Richard Wagner was present by giggling and cracking jokes amid all the solemn discussion. Now, after 20 years of studying the German philosopher’s work, I’ve finally got round to writing a book about him.

As part of my research, I’m reading a philosophical biography by the Jesuit priest Frederick Copleston, who was one of the few figures brave enough to write about Nietzsche in the post-war era after his reputation had been sullied by his association with the Nazis. Nietzsche was even damned at the Nuremberg Trials.

Fr Copleston’s Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosopher of Culture was first published in 1942, but subsequent editions carried burdensome caveats at the publisher’s insistence, explaining why the German’s writings were antithetical to Nazism. Nietzsche had utter contempt for anti-Semites, who he thought weak and full of resentment, and he loathed German nationalism for all its philistinism. Fr Copleston produced his own new edition in 1975, by which time Nietzsche was becoming voguish in Europe once more, thanks to his influence on emergent postmodernist thought.

Copleston, a friend of the atheist philosopher AJ Ayer, was a man of fierce, daring intellect. You would expect nothing less from a Jesuit. Despite being a great authority on the man, he had little patience for the self-declared anti-Christian Nietzsche. “He claimed to be wicked, and he was correct – he was wicked,”
he concluded.

In Turkey, a man is on trial for comparing the country’s president to Gollum, that fiendish, slimy character from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Film-goers will remember Gollum’s terrible lust for “my precious” – the powerful Ring. He embodies treachery, greed and egotism.

Some contemporary scholars see Gollum as the embodiment of Nietzsche’s dangerous belief in the “will to power”, and that all life is a struggle for domination. Gollum’s insatiable desire, and his addiction to the power the Ring bequeathed him, was his undoing and ruination. Tolkien, being a Christian, was making a point about avarice. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” is one of Nietzsche’s famous quotes. But this maxim must also be read as a warning.

Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickxwest