When I saw this film clip of the recent stunt in which Banksy, who’s doing a much-hyped artist’s residency on the streets of New York this month and whose name is being tooted and trumpeted by every loud voice, set up a stall in Central Park and sold authentic, signed spray art canvasses (which could sell for a very, very pretty penny) for $60 a pop and netted only $420, when I saw this film clip, all my feelings of delight and outrage were eclipsed by one thought: This is a perfect story to describe the vagaries of the art world; this is the parable of the contemporary artist.
At first, I thought the story went something like this: Once upon a fine day in the park, the crowds skip past by a little stand displaying an array of paintings. The people stroll by without stopping or even turning their heads to look or speak to the man selling the stuff, a man who isn’t young or hip or wearing artsy tattoos or fancy facial hair or paint-spattered black, no, he’s just a regular old man a sweater vest and a baseball cap munching a sandwich while they walk, dismissively, briskly, toward a tonier part of town where they’ll find those same canvasses hanging behind glass on broad, flat expanses of flawless white, those same canvases touting prices (but no tags, they’re too special for price tags) adding up to more than a million dollars, and they will linger and ogle and drool, thinking if only I could afford to buy just one, I’d hang this fabulousness over my mantelpiece so everyone could admire my excellent taste.
I went off on a harangue in my head: It’s all in the wrist. If you aren’t represented by a New York agent and haven’t been published in a big print magazine, you’re not worth it. No one will look at you. If you aren’t currently showing in galleries in metropolitan areas, your art isn’t worth the canvas it’s painted on.
For a moment I thought the moral of the story was that people are too lazy to think for themselves and so compliant they don’t know what they like unless someone tells them, that people will follow a man in an expensive suit anywhere. They’d feed crack to their kids or stick syringes of liquid plastic into their arms or spend all their money on lawn statues made of industrial waste if the advertising campaign was cool enough.
This may all be true, but it also didn’t feel like the whole story. Because Banksy’s art isn’t made for galleries; he’s a street artist who makes art he’s never paid for, who breaks the law to spray his art onto walls. I took a closer look at his work which is amply catalogued by random fans who post photos online because there is no law against photographing graffiti and his art is completely accessible to anyone who wants to see it. I have to admit that the paintings he does on walls are infinitely more interesting than the ones he did on canvas for his stunt, even when he used the same stencils. Banksy on a crumbling wall in an alley is far more charming than Banksy on a white canvas hanging on the wall and if I walked by that stall in Central Park, I’d probably keep right on walking, too, because although I thoroughly enjoy his work, the only kind of Banksy I’d want to own is the one that I found sprayed on my front door one morning.
What I take away from this story is that things are changing. Art is happening outside all traditional arenas. Artists and authors, bored with knocking on the doors of the elite clubs, are finding their own places to be. You don’t need to go to a museum or pick up a copy of The New Yorker to do it anymore. Writers are self publishing, painters are taking it to the streets and everyone is promoting themselves online. Amanda Palmer doesn’t need a record label. Amanda Hocking did it for herself. For Banksy, galleries are irrelevant. The money-takers and taste-makers are losing their influence and everyone is starting to think for themselves.
This is what I want to think. Because if we weren’t trying to be commercial, what would we say? And if we didn’t have to make art to match the furniture, what would we do? A world of possibility unfolds.
How can you participate? You can keep your eyes open and your brain turned on and when you see something that excites you, stop to linger. You can “like” the things that you like, share them with your friends, tell the world. Because liking is like buying, only it doesn’t cost a thing. Because love and money are related and eventually, if we’re all paying attention, artists like Banksy will get what they deserve.