We expect certain artists to sell for millions at auction, but would we ever have thought that a vandal would become one of the biggest names in contemporary art?
The pseudonymous artist known as Banksy has disrupted the art market yet again, with the recent sale at Sotheby’s of the painting Devolved Parliament (which depicts MPs as chimps in the House of Commons) for £9.9 million, five times its estimate.
It was a world record for a sale by the Bristol-born graffiti artist, who was rated Britain’s all-time favourite in a poll conducted by Home & Antiques magazine.
By creating works of ‘public art’—spray-painted graffiti, usually with a pointed political message—Banksy has bypassed all conventions of the art market, gaining enormous publicity with the appearance of each work, yet initially at least retaining little control over its legacy. Indeed, there’s often an unseemly scramble for profit whenever one of his works appears on a previously anonymous wall.
His own commentary on this—the self-destruction of the print Girl With Balloon, which shredded itself as it was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $1.4—raises questions of the value and ownership of art. As Banksy himself said on an Instagram post, quoting Picasso, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”
While the likes of Monet, Krasner and Koons have fetched gigantic sums at auction, perhaps none stand out as much as the anonymous Banksy.
So how exactly has Banksy risen from the street to the salesroom?
In the 1990’s, Banksy was part of the underground ‘Bristol Scene’, a cultural movement which drew influence from the city’s multiculturalism, political activism and emerging genres of music. (There’s a persistent rumour that Banksy is Bristol Cathedral School student-turned-graffiti-artist Robin Gunningham, born in Yate, 12 miles from Bristol).
In the depths of underground Bristol, Banksy found a voice among the graffiti art scene and along with it, his niche for creating pieces that presented alternative aspects of politics.
His first known mural The Mild Mild West appeared in the late 1990’s on a wall in Bristol, acting as a response to police action unleashed on party goers at unlicensed raves in abandoned warehouses. What originally started as ‘just graffiti’ caught the attention of the city, then the rest of the world.
Suddenly, there was a voice for contemporary art lovers who lived in urban environments. Art could be appreciated from the city rather than the gallery or the auction house, making it more accessible to those in all walks of life.
A study conducted by MyArtBroker showed that 77 percent of people loved Banksy because his artwork was easier to understand and explain than other artists, and 90 percent said that he had made art more accessible. Banksy had become the people’s artist. City dwellers claimed that ‘they were Banksy, and Banksy was them’. But he wasn’t without his critics—in 2006 satirist Charlie Brooker wrote of Banksy in The Guardian, “…his work looks dazzlingly clever to idiots.”
The Banksy Effect
In 2006, journalist Max Foster coined the term ‘The Banksy Effect’ to describe an increased interest in street art. New artists, such as The Rebel Bear based in Scotland, emerged with similar styles of street art, popping up around the world and employing a satirical, anti-establishment theme.
Banksy had become not just a pioneering artist, but the unintended head of a movement. He cemented his reputation in 2015 with Dismaland (“The UK’s most disappointing new visitor attraction”), a pop-up curated exhibition of the works of 58 artists in Weston-Super-Mare.
It was not long before the world of galleries and auction houses moved in, with for example Keep it Spotless selling for $1.87 million in 2008 at a New York auction.
While Banksy’s guerrilla art continue to make regular appearances, in 2018 he made the ultimate statement of his ethos with the self-destruction by shredder of a print of Girl With Balloon. While the action underlined Banksy’s rejection of the commercial art world, ironically, the new owner is thrilled—the work has been retitled Love In The Bin, certificated by Banksy’s authentication body Pest Control, and valued even higher than the selling price. “When the hammer came down and the work was shredded, I was at first shocked, but gradually I began to realise that I would end up with my own piece of art history,” said the new owner.
In a similar act of defiance, Banksy recently opened a shop in Croydon, London to make a stand for his artistic rights. GDP (Gross Domestic Products) never opened its doors—all products were sold online. The window display featured anti-establishment art typical of Banksy, including ‘disco balls’ made from police riot helmets, and welcome mats from life vests salvaged from Greek detainment camps.
Banksy explained the move was intended to establish copyright of his name after a greetings card company challenged for the right to use it. Certainly the public nature of the majority of Banksy’s art makes it difficult for him to establish ownership. Indeed, there’s a sense of bitterness to his comment on the sale of Devolved Parliament, “Shame I didn’t still own it”.
Ironically, there are suggestions that Banksy may have commissioned but not painted the work—he refers to having ‘made’ rather than ‘painted’ it, and the 14-foot oil painting is certainly not in his familiar style. Substantially repainted since it first appeared in 2009 as Question Time in the Bristol Museum, it has been claimed it could be the work of another anonymous artist, ‘Mason Storm’. Art critic David Lee said ‘It’s probably too finely worked to be by Banksy… It’s hardly unusual for artists who can’t paint ‘properly’ to commission someone else to do it for them. But does it matter if it isn’t painted by Banksy? Of course not. With Banksy we are dealing with a sloganiser, not a technician.”
Sotheby’s rather coyly commented “There is no evidence to suggest it is not by Banksy: it is signed and dated by the artist, and accompanied by a certificate of authenticity.”
Another conflict broke out when artist Andy Link claimed ownership of Banksy’s sculpture The Drinker, which Link had taken from its original site off Shaftesbury Avenue. Mysteriously ‘liberated’ from his lock-up, the sculpture come up for auction at Sotheby’s, only to be withdrawn over Link’s complaint.
So how has this artist who seems so opposed to the principles of the established art world become one of its darlings?
Sold for £32,500 at Christie’s in September 2019, one of Banksy’s works, titled I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Sh*t, might (or might not) describe Banksy’s feelings towards his buyers. Steven Lazarides, art dealer and formerly Banksy’s agent, spoke out on the state of the corporate art world in 2019.
“All of Banksy’s main pieces are in private collections. There has never been a significant work come up in an auction because the auction houses do not understand it.”
Lazarides suggests that art auctions trade art for gigantic sums in endless circles, stating: “The only way for [auction houses] to keep going is from secondary market sales and there’s only a finite number of people who can be flipping Warhols and Basquiats.”
“I worked with [Banksy] for 11 glorious years, during which time we broke every rule in the art rule book along with a fair few laws,” he said. “However nowadays it’s got to the stage where [the gallery world] is about nothing other than monetary value.”
But whether his work belongs in the auction house or the street, Banksy continues to disrupt the art world’s expectations. His appeal to younger audiences (for instance customising a stab vest costume for headliner Stormzy at Glastonbury) could make him the ultimate people’s artist.
For an anonymous artist, Banksy’s popularity is certainly a first, but as he once said himself: “If you want to say something and have people listen, then you have to wear a mask.”
This feature was originally published in the latest edition of Arts&Collections, which you can read here