April 25, 2011

Interfering with Banksy

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One of England’s most celebrated couples recently flew to the U.S. for a surprise visit. And no, it wasn’t Prince Williams and Kate Middleton, but a stencil of two kissing police cops, by famed street artist Banksy. Although the “kissing coppers” aren’t exactly heirs to any thrown, they’ve certainly been greeted royally in America, where they’re expected to garner an estimated 1 million British pounds (about $1.6 million) at auction.

For the past seven years, the passionately smooching policemen have attracted numerous graffiti art fans to the Prince Albert Pub in Brighton, where they’re stenciled outside on a wall. But, the piece doesn’t just attract fans. Just two weeks after the coppers were stenciled, two men were caught on tape dabbing black paint over the image, and the vandalism attacks didn’t stop there. After repeated attacks, the pub’s owner, Chris Steward, decided that the piece must be removed for its own protection. In 2008, the coppers were chemically transferred onto a canvas, while the original wall was re-stenciled and covered in Plexiglas. Since then, Steward’s pub has faced financial hardship, prompting Steward to sell the canvas with the original stencil through a New York gallery, to keep the pub going.

Steward’s actions raise a number of questions, not least those surrounding property rights. “When [Banksy] put it on the pub, it belonged to the pub, and if it is sold, all the money will go back to the pub,” Steward told The Guardian last week. Although Steward has tried several times to contact the elusive and anonymous Banksy, his efforts have proved unsuccessful. “I think he’ll just shrug his shoulders and say that’s life,” Steward added, when asked how he thought Banksy might react to the work’s sale.

All of this may well be true. Steward may indeed own the legal rights to the piece, and the artist himself — an outspoken anti-capitalist — may remain indifferent to its sale and even see its sale as a legitimization of his own political convictions. And yet, if Steward’s actions are not illegal, they are certainly unfair and undermine an artist’s source for livelihood. Banksy’s graffiti may be illegal, but that shouldn’t give others the right to profit from his work, even if they are legally permitted to do so. In light of this situation, I think we are obligated to re-think and refine laws regarding artistic property rights so that artists may fairly profit from their own ideas and work (if they choose to do so).

Transferring the original image to a canvas and selling it also has serious implications for the LGBTQ community. Stenciled on the wall of a pub, the original piece was situated in the street, where it could confront a homophobic audience daily. The work’s location and context normalized homosexuality, allowing it to gain in visibility and acceptance. But, when a work like this is taken from the street and slapped on a canvas, it becomes separated from any real, lived experience and relegated to the realm of high art. Moreover, its audience becomes much smaller and more homogenous. It’s the difference between a small audience seeing a gay couple on a movie screen or having them as your next-door neighbors. In the first case, the audience is able to separate what happens on the screen or stage from what takes place outside the theater, but the second case breaks down this separation entirely. Removing “kissing coppers” keeps this separation in place, and, for homosexuality to gain acceptance, this separation needs to be broken.

And finally, the trajectory of the “kissing coppers” raises issues regarding the original artwork, and whether the vandals or Steward have compromised the piece’s authenticity. I would argue that as a piece of street art, the work depends on the street context and on the level of interactivity inherent to this environment. The vandalist attacks are part of the piece, as are any police attempts to remove the piece or the subsequent attacks on it. Steward’s actions — transferring the piece to a canvas, re-stenciling the wall, covering the stencil with Plexiglas, and now selling the original — are also part of the piece. By stenciling on a wall, Banksy chose to situate his work in the public realm, thus opening it up to a participatory audience. Everything that has happened to the work since then is evidence of the work’s participatory and interactive nature. In this case, we’ve seen how the audience’s vandalism and sale of the piece have testified to the very homophobia and financial greed Banksy’s work often critiques. Ultimately, that’s the risk to this type of art: that people can do to it what they will, whether by selling or vandalizing it. It’s a type of art that gives the audience a large role—and, in this case, perhaps too much responsibility.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg