By ALICE WANG
It’s the time of year again for Banksy to do some mildly radical things under the guise of his super-secret super-hype guerilla mystique in order to be ultra-relevant again. Taking the bait, we are once again eating his shit up, perpetuating his self-fulfilling prophecy of being famous by acting like he doesn’t want to be famous.
In his month-long residency in New York City of daily installations, Banky has done a fantastic job of depicting too-literal takes on politically charged subject matter. Without the subtlety of real cleverness, his art is just the right amount of obvious so that passersby will get the joke and blindly espouse his brilliance. Either Banksy does this on purpose (for which he should be legitimately praised as a genius), or he does this by accident (for which he can laugh all the way to the bank). He wins no matter what. Besides, for regular folk, Banksy is the perfect level of underground — that is to say he is as mainstream as 2002 Avril Lavigne, but because it’s art (a subject in which the general public has zero common knowledge on), it’s different (I guess).
Despite all this, Banksy’s work is not inherently flawed. The dude’s got gumption, and despite his overwhelming mediocrity, he publicizes art, which is always a good cause. He even sometimes says things that are witty and poignant in real life, in the actual world, so that’s nice, too. He seems acutely self-aware of his own good luck and modest talent in the fucked-up field of commercialized street art — and he openly tells us so in a recent interview with Keegan Hamilton of The Village Voice: “But there’s no way round it — commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist. We’re not supposed to be embraced that way. When you look at how society rewards so many of the wrong people, it’s hard not to view financial reimbursement as a badge of self-serving mediocrity.”
This is saying a lot for a British vagrant who sold a collab with Damien Hirst for $1.87 in 2008. Banksy’s work once sold as a “mural with a house attached to it” in a 2007 Sotheby’s auction, celebrities who like to think themselves culturally savvy, like Christina Aguilera and Angelina Jolie, practically jizzed themselves trying to collect all his hip work of “social commentary.” And yet, none of this is Banksy’s fault. He has to hear the label “sell-out” bandied about his name for the rest of his life because some teen girls like to place his balloon girl decals on the backs of their MacBook Pros, but if Banksy’s most recent stunt in Central Park last Saturday proved anything, it’s that the art world was fucked long before he came along.
As part of his “Better Out Than In” residency in New York, Banksy set up a stall on the 5th Avenue border of Central Park peddling his authentic canvases for merely $60 bucks a pop. In between the dude who charges $40 for a black and white caricature and the numerous vendors carrying autographed One Direction memorabilia, an elderly man in white cap manned the Banksy stall until 6 p.m.. His first sale occurred at 3:30 PM to a woman haggling two pieces at half-off for her children, and only two other purchasers followed throughout the day (both tourists). With over three dozen pieces, the stand had an estimated value of $1.59 million, and the buyers unwittingly walked away with up to $300,000 worth of authentic work.
This, out of all of Banksy’s daily exhibitions throughout the month of October, is perhaps most telling. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen fanatics stalking Banksy’s slaughterhouse truck of stuffed animals throughout every corner of the Meatpacking District. Hordes of journalists have staked out in front of his peeing dog graphic in Midtown to document the deluge of New Yorkers who Instagram the work. A group of men from the rough-and-tumble East New York have been charging $20 for a look at Banksy’s latest tag there. The very next day, the same piece was chiseled out of the wall to be sold for auction.
Juxtaposing his Central Park experiment against the fauxhemian hysteria of his more publicized work, Banksy is showing that his graffiti is not the subject of “Better Out Than In” — rather, we are. While everyone loves to play the pseudo-art critic and bemoan the institutionalization of street art by the media, there is no puritanical expression of graffiti. The hilarious catch twenty-two is that the more one becomes the visual voice of the voiceless, the more street cred one gains, and therefore the more value one’s work will garner in a gallery setting. Banksy’s experiment shows that without “selling out,” without Twitter to create buzz about his whereabouts and without journalists to speculate his identity, no one would care about his art. He’s proven this point numerous times as several of his recent installations for “Better Out Than In” have been defaced and mistaken for commonplace graffiti. Without context and directed marketing, we know absolutely nothing about art. Its value is derived from the value society assigns it, and thus the so-called commercialization of street art is a farce.