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February 13, 2007

A friend of mine in London by the name of James and I have been enjoying an on-going conversation about street art for the past year or so. When I was back in England in December, James gave me a Web-based tour of the work of several street artists in London, New York and Paris such as Blek le Rat, Banksy and The Wooster Collective who are making a big name for themselves. The movement is fascinating because, like performance art "happenings" in the 1960s and 70s, this emerging brand of urban iconography is very grassroots and interested in engaging with surroundings in a completely unmediated, guerilla way.

But the recent spike in the art market which has helped to bring about all-time record sales for mainstream art works by the likes of Picasso and Pollock is also affecting the world of street art. I don't think that inflated prices for art work is a positive turn of events in general, and I'm wondering about its impact on urban art -- known as the "Banksy Effect" after the artist whose work seems to have kicked off the trend for paying high prices for street art -- in particular.

This morning, James sent me a link to a piece of writing on The Wooster Collective's website. In the text, members of the Collective argue that Banksy's success is "the best thing that could have ever happened to the street art movement."

I think it's great that the work of street artists, so long ignored and considered outside the art establishment, is finally attracting the respect and attention it deserves. But the question of the prices that these works fetch at auction and their current celebrity endorsement is a fraught one.

Some information about the artist's recent sales and hoopla from Wikipedia:

"After Christina Aguilera bought an original of Queen Victoria as a lesbian and two prints for £25,000 on 19 October 2006, a set of Kate Moss paintings sold in Sotheby's London for £50,400, setting an auction record for Banksy's work. The six silk-screen prints, featuring the model painted in the style of Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe pictures, sold for five times its estimated value. His stencil of a green Mona Lisa with paint dripping from her eyes sold for £57,600 at the same auction. On 7 February 2007, Sotheby's auction house in London auctioned three Banksy works and reached the highest ever price for a Bansky work at auction of over £102,000 for his Bombing Middle England. Two of his other graffiti works, Balloon Girl and Bomb Hugger, sold for £37,200 and £31,200 respectively, which were well above their estimate prices. On 8 February 2007, Sotheby's auction house held another London based auction where a further three Banksy works reached soaring prices. Ballerina With Action Man Parts reached £96,000 whilst Glory sold for £72,000 and Untitled (2004) sold for £33,600 - all three auctions sold way over expected estimates."

I feel in two minds about the financial and media success of Banksy and other artists in the street art movement (or indeed artists working in any movement.) What it boils down to is this: it’s not a problem that these people are getting money and recognition. I’m sure it’s well deserved. It’s what happens to the art once an artist becomes successful that matters. If an artist can sustain his or her brilliance AND not let all the fame and cash change his or her work for the worse, then great. But history has shown time and time again art and commerce to be a crude mismatch. And if the work of street artists depends so much on the guerrilla approach, then how easy is it to rush out with a spray can and a stencil and create a work of art on a building or pavement, when you're being spotted by fans from across the street or when the work is being sponsored by a corporation?

The other issue that all of this throws up is to do with the effect of the hype on the public. To what degree are the people who lay down all this money for “a Banksy” doing it because they love the work? Or is it Banksy’s work just the latest must-have accessory? If that’s the case, then you can be sure that by next year, the Banksy that had so proudly adorned the young hip hedge fund manager’s Limehouse living room, will, by next year, be in the back bathroom. And the year after that, perhaps it’ll be on eBay, selling for £37.20, not £37,200. Who knows...

I wonder what Banky thinks of all of this? If his Website's to be believed, it's not much, by the looks of things: On February 8, the artist updated his homepage with an image of an auction house scene with people bidding on a picture that said, "I Can't Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit."


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