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?