SO it seems that Banksy’s Balloon Girl – from a shortlist compiled by “art experts”, via a poll commissioned by a tech company – has been chosen as the best-loved artwork of these islands.

The harrumphing has already started (and with Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler at three, and Jamie Reid’s Never Mind the Bollocks album cover at 20, it will undoubtedly continue). There is enough Turner, Hockey, Moore, Gormley and Constable in the list to placate the art police (though I assume the Scots-beloved Joan Eardley was nowhere on the list).

But I am intrigued that a piece of spray-painted, sentimental street-art – from a self-proclaimed “political” artist – has topped this list. If you wanted to make Balloon Girl an indicator of our collective mood, it would be easy to do.

Our streets are currently stressing us out. They can be occasional front-lines for global war; horror shows of acid or other attacks; infernos of blaring, untrustworthy brands. One might easily regard graffiti art as one more disheartening swirl in the chaos – yet more egotistical assertion, yet more visual disruption.

But Banksy allows this edgy artform to give us a moment of child-like yearning: the sight of love floating free from our fingers. We know an artwork like this can be easily blasted away the next morning, a zealous roadcrew down from the council with their watersprays.

Yet we might also agree that – for the sake of such poignant idealism, at least – local by-laws be damned.

Step back from such a positive interpretation, however, and the real-life contradictions abound. Such is the market value of a Banksy street-painting in the art world, that the local authorities would be as likely to slap a perspex sheet over it, hoping that its presence would raise property and rental rates.

And note what happened to the original Balloon Girl piece in East London. It was carefully removed from its shopwall by some sharp property consultants, is now a framed object, and sports a current pricetag of £500,000.

This exploitation has regularly happened to early Banksy street artworks, despite the creator(s) regularly protesting.

Banksy himself (or themselves, the exact identity of the artist is still well-hidden) has riffed more politically on this image recently.

In some versions, the balloon girl has become a Syrian refugee.

And in the last election, the disappearing balloon was imprinted with a Union Jack. Banksy had a scheme to give prints free to those who could provide cameraphone proof they’d voted anti-Tory. That is, until the Electoral Commission warned him about the 1983 Representation of the People Act.

The haughtier comments about Banksy’s national-treasure status have accused him of making art “merely fit for the age of Twitter”. Meaning that Banksy trades in simplistic, polemical ideas, all too instantly and easily comprehended.

Real art “takes time, effort or passion to understand … it is profoundly mysterious”, says art critic Jonathan Jones. We need to reject, he writes, the “bullying populism” of Banksy.

I’m not going down the rabbit hole of contemporary art criticism – where it can often seem like there’s an inner link between the grandiosity of the critique, and that of the artwork’s pricetag. Banksy’s own Oscar-nominated documentary, Exit Through The Gift Shop, is an elaborate prank about exactly this kind of high-concept, high-cost hype (while giving interesting insights into his working methods).

I find it difficult to talk about “radical” art that sits inside galleries, given how the gallery system currently functions – that is, as a conveyor belt of glittering trinkets for the delight of modern plutocrats. I’m much more interested in how “street art” impacts on us as pedestrians and citizens. And that isn’t a simple story.

Street art is now a burgeoning global business. This growth has matched the way that cities have changed their sense of themselves. The graffiti artists of the seventies and eighties exploded their cartoons and wild typography all over the trains and walls of major cities.

The youth of a working class beginning to feel the neoliberal squeeze sought to both defy their marginalisation, and announce their presence – deploying spraycans of many colours on the obvious surfaces of the city.

The chase was on between street art and the authorities. But as the art historian Julian Stallabrass has noted, this stuff was often a genuine mystery to outsiders.

The art itself was studded with codes and symbols that only made sense to the competing crews. That, plus the general opposition of the authorities, gives the street art of this era a crackling energy.

But the economic model of big-city life has morphed a few times since then. Nowadays, street art is positively embraced. It’s seen as a way to display the inherent creativity of an aspirant and cosmopolitan city to the passing trade – attracting capital in all its forms.

Glasgow is a great example of this; instead of bare end-walls awaiting their tedious ad hoardings, we have fantastic scenes, or icons from sport, science or the arts. The creative quarters of many European and US cities are following the same paths towards urban enchantment.

However, as many street art practitioners and critics note, what is produced are more like the municipal murals of historic city-states. I’ve just returned from a break in Prague – where buildings are encrusted with gothic and baroque stylings; surreal displays of wealth, taste and civic pride, all the way from the 17th century).

Such commissioned – or even just openly permitted – productions are often very different to the frantic, danger-laden overnight scrawlings of the street-writer or radical artist. The latter are trying to avoid security (whether human or digital) – not seeking permission and time to complete a beautifully detailed artwork. Radical street artists want to command, or shock within a space that really doesn’t welcome their presence.

So even given the general luxury and corruption of contemporary arts, I’m glad for the success of “Balloon Girl”. It can serve as a gateway to Banksy’s more provocative recent works, all strikingly available at

There you can find a giant graphic on a building wall in Dover – a workman chipping away at a European star, triggering fractures in the whole blue edifice. Or on a wall across from the French Embassy, you can find the graphic of one of the Les Miserables, rising like a ghoul from a CS canister. Next to it, a Q-code takes you to footage of tear gas being used in a raid of a Calais refugee camp.

And on the overpass wall of that same camp, Banksy has stencilled the image of an itinerant Steve Jobs, the son of Syrian immigrants himself, looking tense and on the move.

It’s agit-prop, “agitational propaganda”, absolutely no doubt about it. But don’t the times demand such direct interventions in our visual environment?

In researching this, I was startled by the German street artist COR’s mural from 2016. He had identified a blank rectangular wall near the European Central Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt. COR covered it entirely with the prone, beached body of the drowned Syrian refugee boy Alan Kurdi. Of course, the mural was soon defaced by those who oppose its critique. But in its prime, one might imagine the image beating sorely upon the minds and hearts of commenting Frankfurters.

I don’t want to idealise the moral impact of radical street art, or give the idea that it’s inherently preferable to designer decoration. An afternoon’s stroll around the tribal murals of Belfast’s inner-city suburbs would disabuse you of that.

But in our urban visual landscape – as in so many areas of Scottish life – we now need to be taking, and experiencing, a few more risks. As we bumble about our daily business, what national or global power imbalances are we Scots implicated in? How can we be shocked and startled into seeing them, and acting accordingly?

I will stretch to a third cheer for Banksy, if he provides a jumping-off point for a generation of young creatives, braver than I, who can stop us in our pedestrian tracks.