Banksy and the Downside of Being Up

‘Getting Up’ is something graffiti writers aim to do. Putting paint to the wall for the world to sit and wonder -- how? -- and more importantly: why? This is not done out of expectation that it will last forever, but as an affront to the fact that nothing will. “Getting up” is a journey, implied in the future-tense of the language.

What happens, though, when one achieve up-ness? That threshold beyond the rest: worldwide recognition. At this level, one becomes fame, but how does this fame influence the creative process? Is one ever supposed to stay up? Banksy is one of the few street artists to achieve this status and cross over into the art world in a massive way.

Due to the anonymous nature of the graffiti artist's persona, very little has been confirmed about the formative years in Banksy’s life. As stated in the book Stencil Graffiti, [Banksy] ...was born in 1974 and raised in Bristol, England. The son of a photocopier engineer, he trained as a butcher but became involved in graffiti during the great Bristol aerosol boom of the late 1980s."

Banksy found his edge with a shift toward stencil art. This technique offered speed and efficiency while tagging in the open streets. Many trace this influence to Blek le Rat, a French stencil artist. Like the sentiment found in the, “Simpsons Already Did It” South Park episode, Banksy’s work often draws criticism derivative nature.

"Every time I think I've painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only 20 years earlier," Banksy is widely quoted as saying. Ultimately, he would eclipse Blek in recognition.

Thematically, Banksy would create art that gave voice to those who felt oppressed by capitalism. His style imbued flashes of truth with a tinge of dark humor that made them memorable. Stencils also offered consistency, amplifying Banksy’s ability to “get up” with repeated messages. This was meming in the analog world.

The artist has come a long way since his pre-gallery era, and fame has certainly had its effect. From midnight throw-ups to million-dollar auctions, Banksy’s audience has shifted -- and this has had its influence on his work. This is the downside of being up.

The most expensive Banksy ever sold was, ‘Keep it Spotless,’ commanding $1.7M at an auction in 2008. Described online as a “defaced Damien Hirst,” it’s a stencil work that depicts a maid lifting up the canvas to reveal its frame while she sweeps the dirt behind. In actuality, “Keep it Spotless” is more of a collaboration between Hirst and Banksy -- akin to the mash-ups Supreme has with other companies, so it’s no wonder it sold for so much.

The oddity behind this team-up is that Hurst’s work is the epitome of the art-world establishment. A man known for formaldehyde sharks, diamond-encrusted skulls and works painted by his assistants, one could say that Hurst is the art-world’s capitalistic super-villain. Hirst's impact on the world is exactly what Banksy creates against. A collaboration between the two imparts significant context to the work as a whole. It’s not only symbolic of Banksy’s raucous entry into the world of fine art -- but also shows that he plans to play their game. 

In 2018, Banksy captured another 15 minutes when a copy of “Girl with Balloon.” shredded the moment it was auctioned. Something like this would seemingly destroy the aesthetic value of most art -- but collectors aren’t buying Banksy’s work for its aesthetic value -- they buy it to own a piece of the artist's mythos.

‘Girl with a Balloon,’ or ‘Balloon Girl’ as I prefer to call her, is one of Banksy’s mainstays. The stencil depicts a young girl reaching in anguish for the string of a heart-shaped balloon. Often appearing in social campaigns, ‘Balloon Girl’ symbolizes a crisis -- that love is being taken away. The what carries this piece is the distance between the girls hand and the balloon string. Like Michelangelo’s, “Creation of Adam,” there is an unbearable tension in that empty space.

Banksy is a larger-than-life character, and shredding the work added a new layer of storytelling and complexity to the work -- making it more memorable and more valuable in the process. The artist even gave the work a new name, “Love is in the Bin.” That tension of empty space has been ripped apart. Forever altered and seperate, as if the empathetic sentiment is no longer attainable. Banksy confirmed that the shredding was his work, and Sotheby’s predictably authenticated the piece as, “the first artwork in history to have been created live at auction.”

In reality, ‘Love is in the Bin’ is just a reproduction -- a print signed by the artist. Prints which Banksy no longer produces. The shredding is a marker and message from Banksy himself, solidifying that fact that their numbers are lessening.

However noble this act appears, it ultimately limits the supply of official Banksy prints -- skyrocketing the value of those that exist. The subjective decision make is to decide if Banksy has the Midas touch when it comes to making art that people want to buy, or if he is just an expert at influencing and controlling the market..

This is the main issue when it comes to artistic celebrity, a focus on the creator rather than the creation. The meaning of the work is clouded with the distorted perception of personality created by media corporations, art galleries, and the artist himself.

Art is most things, and when properly guided, it has the transformative power to change how we perceive life. There is no doubt that Banksy’s creative ability has co-opted by the very people he wanted to critique, and this has influenced his voice. Is he fighting this co-option or has he been corrupted by it? This is the main struggle of being “Up,” but it is not the only one.

Currently, Banksy is battling unofficial exhibitions. With thought-provoking titles like “Banksy: Genius or Vandal?” these collections remove the context to his work, offering little meaning by utilizing the commercial potential of his “brand” to generate a profit.

Death of the Author” is a viewpoint that states the intent and opinion of the creator has no more bearing on the weight of a work than it’s viewer. And to most viewers, the post-market art seems genuine, even if it’s unofficially hosted. It doesn’t matter that rich oligarchs pulled these works out of context to show them, collectively, for profit. The point when collecting art is to make money. Art is an investment, to be protected behind glass and viewed only by those with the right connections.

Banksy’s initial response to this was an Instagram post of a message between him and someone else. Banksy, seemingly surprised by the message, states his lack of involvement (and that he does not have much room to speak on copyright infringement.)

The issue every artist confronts, especially when it comes to celebrity, is intent. What drives the call the create? It’s apparent that Banksy’s muse was different than other street artists at his start. So different, in fact, the whole world started to pay attention. 

Eventually, this attention became an inseparable aspect of Banksy’s life. His art was no longer the visual musings of a vandal stenciled on a wall - they were the immersive events designed by a millionaire. They no longer embodied the struggle of living in a corporatized world, but rather became the “Live Laugh Love” of the commodified counterculture lifestyle. Ultimately, this crippeled Banksy’s creative intent, peaking with Dismaland™, the all-to-predictable jab at Disney and their theme parks.

What should a millionaire do to ensure their art’s message and execution have the same resonance? Banksy could have been more destructive with ‘Balloon Girl,’ or more aggressive with “Dismaland,” but this is an issue larger than a couple publicity stunts. There is a massive dissonance between Banksy’s anti-capitalist message and the bourgeoisie of the fine art world, and this cannot be rectified with novelty. It requires the subversive tactics that birthed the street artists in the first place.

Banksy’s one true advantage is the value granted to something with his work on it. People are willing to tear off parts of their buildings, set up tourist traps, build for-profit, world-traveling galleries -- all because of the way he applies paint to them. That’s power. Adding value and the incentive to remove are the things that a famous graffiti artist can anticipate. The potential offered by this power ranges from painting things people want removed (flint water pipes, abandoned homes,) to hiring a team of official forgers to flood the market.

Banksy used the familiarity of pop culture to give voice to the class war he observed. He used his talents to share a message that could not be ignored -- but has anything come from it? Has anything changed? The short answer is yes -- Banksy’s art is a now a commodity, and with that commodification, comes power. How Banksy wields this power is yet to be clear, but google some of his recent works and ask yourself: “Who’s benefiting from these?”

The choices that grant financial success might also end with corruption of work and identity. Banksy’s surely has, but like with “Balloon Girl,” there is always hope. Artists spend their careers fighting obscurity and irrelevance. It’s one of the factors that force them to change and evolve. Eventually, novelty won’t be enough, and Banksy will have to adapt. The question is: will he be directed by market forces, or will he find a way to reclaim the integrity proclaimed by his art?

“Writing graffiti is about the most honest way you can be an artist. It takes no money to do it, you don’t need an education to understand it, and there’s no admission fee.”

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