In case you haven’t heard, Banksy, the famous and famously elusive British graffiti artist, is spending the month of October in New York, surreptitiously gracing walls throughout the five boroughs with his distinctive stencils. His latest piece shows a pair of ladies in traditional Japanese dress crossing a bridge-shaped arch on the side of a building in Williamsburg.
He’s also, as is his wont, pulling pranks. A slaughterhouse delivery truck with cute, fuzzy stuffed animals peeking out drove around Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. And a stall at the entrance to Central Park, surrounded by sketch artists and horse-drawn carriages, for one day last week sold signed Banksy works on canvas for $60 a pop. By some estimates, the pieces of art on the table could fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the stall, only seven sold, for a grand total of $420, and none of the purchasers shown on the video on Banksy’s website seemed to have any idea what they were buying.
From the city’s reaction to Banksy, you’d think graffiti art was some exotic British custom and not something as familiar to New York as the all-beef hot dog. The mayor has weighed in on whether Banksy’s work is art—he does not think so. The NYPD may or may not be trying to arrest him for vandalism. Crowds and TV vans rush to the site of each new work as if the face of the Virgin Mary had appeared on a knish. As an extended act of guerrilla marketing for brand Banksy, the month has been a smashing success.
It’s meant to be more than that, though. Banksy’s Central Park print stall suggests that he’s interested in the question of value: How much is a Banksy worth, and where does that value come from? Watching the sidewalk stall video it’s hard not to think the joke’s on the people in it—even though they end up with pieces of art that, unbeknownst to them, are worth hundreds of times what they paid for them. The joke is on all of us harried urban types who fancy ourselves sophisticates but can’t spot real art unless someone tells us what it is. This shouldn’t be news: When violinist Joshua Bell busked for 43 minutes in the D.C. Metro in 2007, he earned $32.17 and went entirely unrecognized.
On the other hand, maybe those yokels in the Banksy video are onto something. The prank works because it takes Banksy’s prints out of their expected context, a high-end art gallery. But prints in a gallery are already a denatured form of what he does. The work that made his name, his real work, is graffiti: images and crafted objects out in the world cleverly riffing off of the environment where he places them. Plenty of art critics argue that, even in that setting, they’re one-liners; put them on canvas in a gallery and they’re not even that.
Profiting from Banksy’s work in situ raises its own questions. Graffiti doesn’t belong to the artist, since the medium is someone else’s property. In Banksy’s case that has led building owners to cut out walls and sell them through galleries. In 2008 an English couple put their mobile home on the market as a piece of art several years after Banksy covered one side of it with his work. For them, Banksy’s work was a gift, and they were free to do with it what they wanted.
As Banksy’s fame has grown, that gift has grown more complicated. On Friday the owner of the Brooklyn building Banksy tagged with the kimono-clad ladies wrote on New York magazine’s website about the experience. Suddenly she had to deal with mobs outside her building. She also had to decide whether she had a responsibility to protect the piece—someone had already tried to deface it but was thwarted by the crowd—and if so, how. She hired security guards and enlisted the help of an art law expert to try to find a preservation expert. She’s clearly not relishing any of this; it’s like dealing with a baby someone dropped on her doorstep. More interesting than the question of how much people would pay to own a Banksy might be how much they’d pay to never have been given one in the first place.