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Banksy’s Trick or Treat?

The headline on the Daily Beast labeled it Banksy’s greatest trick yet. Apparently everyone who walked by the Central Park stall selling his art are right fools for not purchasing an original Banksy for $60.  The Daily Beast writes,

On his website on Sunday, the artist announced that he had set up a stall along Central Park on Saturday—selling “100% authentic original signed Banksy canvases. For $60 each.” That’s right: Banksy, whose works sell for millions at auction, sold canvases for $60 on the streets of New York. And the most unbelievable part? Almost no one bought them. It was part stunt, part social experiment: If people don’t know they are looking at work from a world-famous artist, do they even care?

I’m not really sure about labeling this a trick.  Humans have since the dawn of time assigned worth to objects, and that worth may even change from person to person.  Someone feeling dehydrated on a hot day may not think twice about shelling out $2 for a bottle of water.  That very same person would balk at paying $2 for that same amount of water at a restaurant.  And the same goes for art: when we love it, when we think it has value, we are willing to pay for it.  And when we are meh about it, or we believe that it isn’t worth the cost, we don’t buy it.


Image: Eadmundo via Flickr

In other words, New Yokers love Banksy when they know it’s a Banksy.  But it seems as if New Yorkers feel pretty meh about his work when his name isn’t clearly attached.  It speaks more to the power of the PR machine — either the informal one created by society at large or by firms.  Names (and reputations) mean something.  Yes, there needs to be some talent in place to get it started, but there is some truth to the SNL sketch where Jon Lovitz’s played Picasso and called his used tissues “art.”  We are way too loose in giving attention and accolades to works of art and performances based on the name attached to the project.  And we overlook way too many great books, songs, and movies because our attention is being dragged towards a select few.

As a social experiment, I’m fairly disappointed in Banksy’s lack of creativity.  Joshua Bell already did this stunt back in 2007, and Bell certainly wasn’t the first to show how art sometimes needs context for the common person to recognize its value.  JK Rowling recently showed us just how much her name means.  When she published a book as Robert Galbraith, she sold about 500 copies.  Within days of the reveal, that number shot up to tens of thousands.  We’re supposed to be red-faced because we didn’t realize we had the ability to read a new book by JK Rowling, but really, what does it say about the work itself without the name attached?  It was the exact same book when it was written by Robert Galbraith as it was when it was written by JK Rowling: not one word changed.  The sales figures tell the story of so many books out there: it was fine; it may have even been fantastic but without a household name or any PR muscle behind it to get it into reader’s hands, it’s going to languish in the shadows.

And that sucks.  That part really really sucks about being an artist of any nature — blogger, musician, actor, author.  You either need a critical mass to find and become smitten with your work, or you need a calculated push behind it.  Once that attention is established, it becomes self-generating even if individual works are praised or panned.  But getting that attention established takes a lot of work.

It’s clear that sometimes we’re told what to love, what to find worth in.  Publishers pay big money for some of their books to feature prominently in bookstores.  It’s not that those books that are on the tables are actually better; they just have publicity dollars behind them.  And sometimes those publicity dollars paired with a fairly decent novel cause a book to skyrocket.  But the scary thing is that often times, that very same book without the publicity behind it would be lost in the pages of Amazon.

Maybe what Banksy’s stunt tells us is that some things that receive attention are really unworthy of our attention just as much as things worthy of our attention slip us by.

I think if all art and performances were anonymous, weighed by their own merit without any ability to follow a single artist, musician, writer, or actor, we’d have a purer system of judging work.  But we know that celebrity and reputation plays an enormous role in how we interact with a piece or determine its value.  So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people walking on by a stall in Central Park and not purchasing a Banksy because it didn’t grab their fancy.  We’d be better art connoisseurs if we didn’t get so wrapped up in assigning worth based on celebrity.

What do you think?


1 Carla { 10.16.13 at 8:45 am }

I think this applies to so many things in life! My husband used to insist that name-brand items (clothes, shoes, even food!) were better than generic. He finally agreed to shop around for clothes and shoes and found that quality is definitely not always linked to a name. As for food items—I was a bit sneaky, for a few months I bought the name-brand ketchup, laundry detergent, cleaning products, etc., but when those bottles were empty, I began refilling them with their generic equivalent. He never knew the difference. About a year later, he suggested we try the cheaper products and I finally confessed that we’d been using them all along.

2 KeAnne { 10.16.13 at 9:39 am }

I heard about this, but I had never heard of Banksy before the stunt. Guess I live under a rock? So, does the fact that almost no one bought his work for $60 mean that it really sucks and it has been hyperbolized because of his name & reputation? I like the idea of anonymity in order to truly judge the merit of a work of art, music, writing, etc. Why am I thinking a bit about Harrison Bergeron now?

3 Gail { 10.16.13 at 9:41 am }

I saw a study once where people were being shown artwork from an artist who was anonymous, but the researchers had made up a good back story for. The art was definitely in the “modern” art category and people were buying it for thousands of dollars. After the study, they revealed that the artist was actually a gorilla who was finger and body painting canvas. People were mad that they had been duped. My thought is that if you like the art for the actual aesthetics of it, then buy it. If you don’t like it, then don’t buy it. Unfortunately, there are many people who buy art as an investment the way other people buy real estate or cars. In that case, every purchase must be seen as a gamble. Sometimes you buy an awesome piece of property along a park, other times you buy a swamp.

4 deathstar { 10.16.13 at 11:19 am }

We went to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA to all those in the know) in NYC and my husband had a conniption about the art that was on display. He insisted that he could have done the same thing if not better. For example: white paint on canvas, black paint with red stripe on canvas, paper mache penis with balls, that type of thing.

I’ve experienced something like that in the acting business. If someone in LA thinks you’re better than sliced bread, then all of a sudden in Vancouver, you’re a big deal and you get work. Still shaking my head over people who win Oscars while others don’t. Art has always been subjective. And frankly, had I walked by, I wouldn’t have bought one either because I can’t afford $60 for a painting period.

5 JustHeather { 10.16.13 at 3:36 pm }

Names definitely do carry weight in this world… For many many years I avoided name brand things like the plague, especially clothes. It was mostly out of principal (all the snotty popular and rich kids had the “good” stuff) and I couldn’t afford it and my parents wouldn’t pay for it either. As years have gone by, I will buy some name brand stuff either because I have had good experiences with something of that brand, it happens to fit and I like it or it was on sale. Same goes with food. Most times I buy generic, but sometimes, some name brands actually taste better (Heinz ketchup and pickles).

As for art work, I would have to like something before being willing to pay so much for it.

6 Pepper { 10.16.13 at 4:49 pm }

So I don’t know Banksy, but this is not surprising. I am currently out of touch on a lot of things. However, I find stunts like this annoying. I think it’s smug. I feel like being told what is valuable is not necessarily always a bad thing. I trust others’ book recommendations, why not art? Especially because I know nothing. at. all. about. art.

Funny though because I still haven’t gotten around to the new JK Rowling book even though I loved Harry Potter and I’ve heard good things… something about the way she published it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I feel like when well-known and successful people do these types of things it’s rubbing it in the face of the less successful, talented people – because ultimately, all they have to do is “the big reveal” and suddenly everybody buys.

I have no idea if this is what JKR intended (as I said, out of touch) but that’s usually my take on this scenario.

7 persnickety { 10.16.13 at 8:12 pm }

A few responses on this- I love art, I know buy a lot of art from street stalls, markets and the like.

A few years ago I went to a Picasso exhibition in Tokyo. There were a few good bits but it was mostly doodles and sketches for costumes. I just remember looking at the scraps of paper and thinking- I doodle like this, my mum does too. There is very little artistic difference. But people don’t pay millions for my doodles. I do like Picasso work and some of his line drawings are amazing. These were not- but they have his name attached, so $20 to get in to see them. Clearly still a little bitter- I actually wanted to see a different exhibition, and my friend convinced me to go to that one.

My husband and I have a large collection of art for our walls- waaaay more than can be fir. Much of it is unframed, so that makes decisions easier. My selection criteria is whether I like it, or my husband likes it. We buy from ikea, from thrift shops, from markets, museums, student art shows and sometimes more ephemeral sources (I have a couple of vintage and international magazines to cut up. I do this because I like certain pieces, not because I forsee any value accruing from these pieces (they are art, not investment). We had a friend over for drinks once and she was talking about how they bought art on a cruise, and that the value is supposed to go up, and could I give her advice on the value. I can’t value art- you either like it or you don’t. It’s worth what you are willing to pay for it. But I think a lot of people don’t have the confidence to say that they like something that is not a “known” artist in the same way

With Banksy, part of the appeal is the play between the piece and its location. This is lost when it is just a canvas to hang on a wall.

8 Kasey { 10.16.13 at 9:03 pm }

It really all comes down to if you like it or not. Or if you have millions to spend, maybe it’s the ability to own the name. My husband is an artist. We have a few pieces we’ve purchased, but the vast majority are things he has painted or friends have done for us. All are things we like. I wouldn’t pay $60 for a Bansky – I just don’t like it that much. But if it was something I loved then I’d buy from a street vendor. I’ve purchased plenty of things from various vendors over the years.

9 Amy { 10.18.13 at 4:02 pm }

I think those few people who stopped and bought are going to be very suprised when they realize what they have. hopefully they don’t treat it like the ‘throw away’ art they thought they bought!

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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