As a parent of three young children who have turned alarmingly feral in recent weeks, may I place on record my gratitude to Banksy for his latest stunt.
One of the clichés about life under lockdown is that we suddenly have all this time to pause, to reflect, to listen to birdsong or take an online course in the classics of ancient Greece.
Ha! Whenever my wife and I hear someone parroting this on the radio, we turn it off. What does life resemble for people like us right now? I'll tell you: the scene of abject desolation that Banksy has staged in five new photographs on his Instagram account. At first, I thought he'd smuggled a camera into our bathroom.
Okay, the agents of chaos in Banksy's bathroom are rats, which recur frequently in his output as a kind of avatar. And I draw the line – for now, at least – at calling my offspring vermin, even if one of them is bawling as I type. Still, exploding toothpaste, foul stains on the loo seat, a tangled trail of wasted toilet paper as long as the Yellow Brick Road? It all looks horribly familiar.
Perhaps Banksy's intentions are more serious than merely skewering cooped-up family life. Is his sorry, scrofulous bathroom a microcosm of the British state, beset by black rats, those traditional carriers of pestilence and plague? Are we meant to divine, here, a satire on governments the world over, doing their best, but struggling to keep the "houses" of their nations in order, and contain the pandemic? Maybe. At least, in an optimistic touch, given the shortage of PPE, there's still a bar of soap on Banksy's sink – and, perhaps, a half-full plastic bottle of hand sanitiser on the top shelf.
Yet, the caption – "My wife hates it when I work from home" – suggests, as ever with Banksy, that the prevailing tone is more one of light-hearted drollery. We're all currently in the soup, and Banksy invites us to respond as Brits have always done during periods of hardship: by making fun of them.
Of course, you'd have to be a fool to spend the sums on Banksy's works that they command at auction (unless, that is, you planned swiftly to sell them on to other saps for even more cash). Here's the thing with Banksy: everyone calls him an "artist" but, really, he's a rollicking cartoonist. He may not work for a newspaper, but, be in no doubt, he embodies that time-honoured strain of knockabout, irreverent, no-holds-barred British humour which stretches back to Rowlandson and Gillray – and beyond. And, like any cartoonist worth his salt, Banksy pumps his new work full of visual gags.
One rat wraps a tail around the light pull, illuminating the scene, and thus initiating the drama. Another, like a long-tailed gymnast, swings cock-a-hoop on a towel ring, landing, with a thump, on a tube of toothpaste – which, karate-kicked, promptly spews out its contents across the wall. A third, spinning like Wile E Coyote in mid-air, causes some bog roll to unfurl: a nimble play on a hamster's wheel.
A fourth, cleverly reflected in the mirror (a device, incidentally, deployed by artists from Van Eyck to Velazquez to Manet), evokes an inmate, notching up the days since his rodent brethren took charge of the asylum – with crimson lipstick. Meanwhile, a fifth takes time out to urinate, like the little boy in Hogarth's 1741 engraving The Enraged Musician. Often, with Banksy, there's an earthy edge.
I mention Hogarth; references to art abound. Tracey Emin's unmade bed is an obvious contemporary touchpoint. Rats aside, I'm also reminded of the photographs of William Eggleston – something to do, I suspect, with the retro sanitary ware in Banksy's image, which begs another, Through the Keyhole-style question: is this the elusive street artist's home?
Maybe the shade of Canadian photographer Jeff Wall's The Destroyed Room (1978) haunts Banksy's imagination, too; a source, in turn, indebted to Delacroix's monumental oil painting The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) in the Louvre, in which the theme of the topsy-turvy domestic interior gets a grand, "exotic", Orientalist makeover.
Above all, though, Banksy's tumultuous bathroom reminds me of those witty paintings by the Dutch Golden Age artist Jan Steen, the son of a brewer who made his name depicting disorderly households. In Steen's pictures, family gatherings are occasions for anarchic uproar. Parents get blotto while children smoke. But there's always song and laughter, and everyone has a rare old time.
The same is true of Banksy's rats. For all their sinister connotations of the Black Death, they seem merry, mischievous – even, perversely, charming. They make us laugh at a moment when laughs are in short supply. And that's a gift. Everyone keeps saying that these are "unprecedented" times. Well, here's something I thought I'd never write: this is Banksy's most generous, heartfelt work yet.