Is Banksy’s Anti-Commercialism Commercial?
Last October, Sotheby’s Paris-to-London remote auction of Modernités saw Banksy’s ‘Show Me The Monet’ net over £7.5 million and secure its future into the hands of an Asian collector.
Banksy’s contemporary take on the impressionist masterpiece revolves around the incorporation of a traffic cone and two shopping trolleys dumped in what should be the infamous lily pond in the artist’s Giverny mansion.The graceless additions to the impressionist painting’s copy aim to polemicise about the indifference of consumeristic society in front of waste and environmental degradation.
It’s not the first time Banksy’s works cash dizzying digits at auction. Last year, ‘Devolved Parliament’ reached the highest amount ever hammered for the artist, sold for nearly £10M.
A tolerable amount for the work of a street artist who reportedly never craved commercial success and rather defined it as a mark of failure for a graffiti artist.
Is the art market delegitimising Banksy’s work?
Avid collectors seem to be adamant about getting their hands on the mysterious artist’s gems. Regardless, we are not sure if hanging above some hedgefund manager's fireplace is the purpose for which those pieces were conceived. But, above all, we can’t help but wonder:
Why did Banksy transition from the physiologically temporary graffiti to commodifiable art forms like paintings?
Bansky’s work may be delegitimised by an insatiable art market, but he doesn’t abstain from deliberately exploiting the commercial potential of his brand.
Prankster or Philanthropist
Last summer the British artist sponsored a 31-meter lifeboat to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. What undoubtedly is a good deed could potentially resemble a social responsibility PR stunt — assuming we woke up distrustful.
If one thing is sure about Banksy, it is that he doesn’t lend himself to ready simplification or classification.
His graffiti is poignant; the political critique is stinging and refreshingly irreverent.
Pieces like ‘Show Me The Monet’ though, make it terribly hard for us not to call into question the same person who produced a self-destroying painting (Sotheby’s, 2018) to slap the commodification of art right in the face.
What ultimately comes to mind, is that Banksy’s tradables are hardly visual art in their three dimensions, as much as performance art in the act of fooling us all. Exquisitely if I may add.
Possibly a Banksy piece hanging next to other legitimised blue-chip artworks is pure performance art itself.
Artist or Marketing Genius
If we were for a moment to abandon the idea of the performance art above, we would be left with the visual part only. I see art as intimately intertwined with creation, being a means to the end of ultimately communicating something. What Banksy delivers is a great deal of communication, but never really shaped a language of his own. The stencil graffiti style he adopts is rather borrowed from the French Blek le Rat in the 1980s.
As Instagram’s favourite Francesco Bonami aka The Bonamist says, “what Banksy does is more similar to a marketing campaign than actual art”. His product is little different from a — still brilliant — advertising campaign.
IKEA’s 2017 bright advert is itself a revisitation of a classic. I am not sure, however, if it will ever be considered else than a marketing team’s touch of genius. Never mind being sold at Sotheby’s for £10M.
Banksy is a very rich creative director, and foremost a brand. ‘Show Me The Monet’ is his environmental sensibility campaign. A very loud one! Which is what we ultimately appreciate about this clever communicator.