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Banksymania

[20/08/2019]

The most famous ‘street art graffiti artist’ of our era… and the British public’s favourite living artist… Banksy’s popularity has been confirmed on the Art Market.

 

According to a YouGov poll, the British prefer BANKSY to Picasso. The Street Art supremo has been named as Britain’s fourth favourite artist in art history… after Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh and Michelangelo. But nobody knows (or wishes to reveal) Banksy’s identity. With no less than 6.3 million followers on Instagram, Banksy has managed to maintain his global reputation in the secrecy of total anonymity. He has literally turned the codes of marketing on their heads by using them to highlight his work as a social agitator rather than his identity.

While their creator remains in the shadows, his works are immediately recognizable: rats (a hounded pest and therefore a perfect alter-ego for Banksy), military helicopters crowned with pink bow-ties, police officers kissing, demonstrators throwing flowers… the artist combines humour with subversion via stencils and writing, leaving little doubt about the meaning of his messages. Dissenting, Banksy, makes his cases in public spaces, questioning the status quo, denouncing, for example, the management of refugees in Calais in front of the French Embassy in London, and he has even organised the creation of nine paintings on Israel’s Gaza security barrier.

Provocative

Naturellement, Banksy is a past-master in the art of provocation: producing a large quantity of counterfeit 10-pound notes with the portrait of Lady Diana… opening a hotel giving directly onto the West Bank partition wall built by Israel (the Walled Off Hotel… presumably pronounced Waldorf), creating a disturbing ‘bemusement park’ in a neglected seaside resort in south-west Bristol (Dismaland, 2015), introducing fake works into prestigious museums like London’s British Museum and New York’s MoMA… etc.

His latest provocation was an impromptu stand on the sidelines of the Venice Biennale (to which the artist was not invited). Incognito, he presented passers-by with a set of paintings entitled Venice in oil (read: Venice in petroleum). Set side by side, the canvases showed one of the enormous cruise ships that are ravaging the beauty of the Serenissima and weakening the city’s foundations. A few days after this filmed ‘happening’ denouncing mass tourism, one of the giant cruise ships crashed into a tourist boat…

Biography of an anonymous person

Not easy to draw up the biography of someone whose controls secrecy so well. On the banksy-art.com website it says he “is believed to be born in Yate, England, while Bristol snapped him up. He is white, mulatto, bald, dwarf, medium- sized, thin and fat at a time. His father is a nurse, a butcher, a machinery engineer, who thinks his son is a house painter”… what is more certain is that he picked up spray cans in the 1980s and asserted himself as a Street art graffiti artist in the early 1990s in a group called Bristol’s DrybreadZ Crew (DBZ). His first graffiti appeared in Bristol around 1993, then it spread around the world. In 2003, he participated for the first time in a London art gallery exhibition, reflecting a clear desire to ‘enter’ the Art Market. He also began to extend the consumption of his works by creating silkscreen prints of his street paintings, priced at a couple of hundred US dollars.

Usurper and market Icon

In 2006, his prices soared. An early work multiplied its mid-range estimate at Bonhams by ten (Tank, embracing Couple, fetching approximately $100,000 on 25 October 2006). In 2008, two works reached over the million-dollar threshold including a still-standing record of $1.87 million (Keep it spotless, Sotheby’s New York). In lift-off mode, Banksy’s prices were hit by a severe correction after the Lehman Brothers collapse with some of his works losing half or 2/3rds of their value. But in 2013-2014, his works returned to the major Contemporary Art sales, generating a series of six-digit results.

On 5 October 2018 Banksy managed to activate the self-destruction of one of his Girl With Balloon (2006) immediately after it was hammered down for $1.4 million at Sotheby’s in London. Anticipating the work’s public sale, Banksy had integrated a small paper shredder into the work’s frame before ‘putting it into circulation’. The shock and horror of spectators and buyers at the sale as the million-dollar paper self-destructed was followed by widespread adulation in the press for such a cleverly orchestrated “hoax” at the heart of the art market machine. The operation could of course be interpreted as a dig at the speculative excesses of the Art Market; however it is highly likely that the Girl With Balloon in question will be worth more after its partial destruction than before, since it is now one of the most famous works in history… As we have seen with other system criticizers, Banksy’s use of the system to criticize it, is often mirrored by the system’s use of the artist in return.

All-told, the coup substantially enhanced Banksy’s popularity and his works are currently enjoying phenomenal demand. He is one of the five top-selling Contemporary artists at auction with a tripled volume of transactions in ten years. Not surprisingly, Banksymania has also triggered and a new kind of art theft with several works being literally removed from their outdoor sites by professionals, including the door work tribute to the victims of the 13 November 2015 terrorist attack at the Bataclan in Paris (January 2019). Its removal was a perfectly pointless exercise since it is unsellable for being too well-identified.

To avoid such thefts (and the corresponding damage to the support materials), the City of London has protected certain stencils with Plexiglas. Banksy’s works, quintessentially unauthorized and ephemeral, are therefore now being ‘patrimonialised’… a wonderful paradox for the British “art terrorist” (art terrorist being one of the sobriquets that the British media have applied to Banksy), whose works are now fully integrated into tourist circuits in the British capital.

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