henever Banksy paints another wall or holds another exhibition, his work soon finds its way to the foreground of current events. From depicting Queen Victoria as a lesbian to protesting segregation in the West Bank, Banksy never shies away from provocative topics. His latest work Love Is in the Bin was sold at Sotheby’s for £1,042,000 and has subsequently launched the debate over the selling of street art to the popular conscience. Described by the auction house as “the first artwork in history to have been created live during an auction” it has been suggested that the piece would now be worth much more than the original price,given its innovative creation. Days after the sale, Banksy released a video showing a prototype which shredded entirely, illustrating how he intended to mock the mainstream art world by destroying the piece.
Banksy has made his dislike for high art culture known in the past; such artworks as ‘Mind The Crap’, which was stencilled onto the steps outside the Tate in 2002 have made his opinions evident. He has also glued his own pieces onto the walls of galleries and museums with mock plaques, which similarly presents this view that just because something is chosen to be put there by curators, it isn’t necessarily more valuable. Above all though is his print ‘Morons.’ Set in an auction house with apainting reading “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit” emblazoned with a gold frame which bears a striking resemblance to the one used to conceal a shredding device, it embodies the artist’s opposition to establishments like Sotheby’s.
The 2017 documentary Saving Banksy offers perhaps the most valuable insight into the perilous relationship between art dealers and street artists. As Banksy puts up pieces around San Francisco many of them are quickly defaced or painted over, but a self-proclaimed good Samaritan spends over $30,000 in his quest to preserve one and donate it to a museum. The salvaged piece is turned down by everywhere he contacts, because they don’t want to act out of accordance with the artist’s wishes. In the words of the SFMOMA curator John Zarobell:
“Some artists make work to be destroyed, they don’t want the art to survive. And if that’s the case then it’s not the museum’s business to preserve it against the wishes of the artist.”
The intentions of preserving these pieces in museums are admirable, even if misguided, when compared to art dealer Stephan Keszler who sold Kissing Cops for £345,000 after having the wall of a Brighton pub demolished. In his own defence, Keszler claims that “If Banksy is honest to himself… I think in a way he’s thankful that we do this” suggesting that the preservation of the piece is most important – even though the artist receives no profit from the dealer’s sale. From this we see the most distinct clash in cultures between the worlds of street artist and dealer, as the latter either cannot understand, or chooses to ignore, the distinct public nature of the art. As Banksy became more famous, more millionaires wanted to acquire a piece of his work – seemingly oblivious to the artist’s intent in his choice of medium.
Even if it is housed in a museum, such an environment comes with bourgeois connotations, and by painting on the streets these artists are painting for people of all classes. The best example of this is the Biggie Smalls mural in Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, where public outcry encouraged the landlord to keep the artwork after initially asking for a fee to keep it there. The piece represents one of the area’s best loved icons, and serves as a reminder of its place in rap history. By taking apart the buildings on which such artworks are painted in order to sell them for profit, art dealers like Keszler are stealing from the people for their own greed – depriving them of vivid and often politically charged works for personal fiscal gain.
In all, the very nature of Banksy’s work is temporary; it is designed to be seen by as many people as possible before being tagged by local graffiti artists, painted over by the city council, or removed for profit. Love Is in the Bin is in many ways a representation of this: available as a framed piece on the wall of Sotheby’s for auction attendees to admire before being shredded, and then sent off to its new owner. It is a characteristic use of irony that a work personally authorised by Banksy for sale has served to promote the message that the nature of the art should be regarded higher than the price or reputation.