Banksy in the Booth, or: How Art Brands Blow Bubbles
If you follow the visual arts at all, you’ve undoubtedly read something this month about Banksy’s increasingly (in)famous Better Out Than In New York “residency.” For those that haven’t, here are the Spark Notes: Instead of moving his studio to a school or institution to produce work in a closed environment (as in a traditional artist’s residency), the elusive British street artist has instead chosen to live covertly in NYC and create a different unsanctioned artwork in a different public space in the city every day.
This hasn’t gone flawlessly. Police pressure forced Banksy to cancel the planned piece for October 23rd, and The New York Times refused to publish the op ed he’d intended to be released as his October 27th contribution. (He substituted a graf piece in Greenpoint instead. You can see both the op ed and the replacement work in the previous link.)
While Better Out Than In presents acres of intellectually fertile territory to till, the piece I want to zero in on today is the half-installation, half-performance piece Banksy set up in Central Park on October 13th. For that day only, a booth manned by an unassuming senior citizen offered up original, signed Banksy paintings on canvas under the innocuous banner “spray art” for $60 each. The video recap Banksy cut captures the results: a total of eight works sold to three clients for a one-day haul of $420 (due in part to the first buyer negotiating a 50% discount on her two acquisitions). For comparison’s sake, The Guardian (UK) estimates the total market value of the eight works at $225,000.00, or about $28,125.00 each.
It’s easy to view Banksy’s Central Park booth as little more than a clever stunt - a prank with a punchline democratically directed at both average and wealthy New Yorkers alike. Both classes could could have had something incredibly valuable for a once-in-a-lifetime bargain price, but they refused to recognize it. Joke’s on them!
However, I think that interpretation not only misses the net, but barely grazes the backboard. Instead of creating some kind of high brow whoopee cushion, Banksy’s Central Park booth did something both much more targeted and much more insightful.
What I find most compelling about the piece is what it says about contemporary art through the lens of luxury branding. If my point of view on today’s art market has a central nervous system, it’s the idea that celebrated contemporary artists and dealers are both luxury brands influencing a lucrative niche market. The principles that allow a vintage Birkin bag to sell at auction for nearly $75,000.00 are the same principles that allow a Gerhard Richter Abstraktes Bild to sell at auction for $34M+. In both cases, orders of magnitude separate the treasured item from a functionally and aesthetically comparable one in the same asset class, strictly because of name recognition and group psychology shared among a tiny, elite audience.
Think of Banksy’s Central Park performance as the art world equivalent of a single Canal Street vendor setting up a kiosk for one day that offered authentic Birkin bags among the throng of indistinguishable knock-offs crowding the sidewalk next to her. This hypothetical fashion renegade would likely have about the same degree of success as Banksy’s surrogate hocker. Why? Because on first blush, there is little detectable difference between the real thing and the fake. What elevates the original, as I’ve discussed before, is a long-standing, tacit agreement among connoisseurs that the “true” creator’s idea and subsequent blessing of the product is vastly more valuable than the product taken only on its objective merits. In short, authorship, i.e. branding, matters to the market. Remove all reliable signifiers of the brand, and the luxury product becomes unrecognizable from an unauthorized replica, annihilating its market in the process. Banksy’s Central Park booth was a day-long proof of concept for this idea. It wasn’t about mooning naive passersby; it was about calling the entire art market into question.
Now, a devil’s advocate might argue that Banksy corrupted the experiment to predetermine his results. That argument would unfold as follows: The “educated” class of seasoned art collectors and dealers - those who could recognize Banksy’s work and understand its “true” value - were unlikely to come across the booth in the tourist trap venue the artist selected as his laboratory. Had Banksy instead set up shop in a neutral environment, or one heavily frequented by fine art connoisseurs, the outcome would have been vastly different. At least a few of these refined taste-makers would have either visually identified that the work for sale was authentic, or known enough about Better Out Than In and the artist's provocateur tendencies to gamble on the works’ authenticity. Had all of the above happened, a bidding war would have undoubtedly ensued, resulting in the canvases’ selling for something much closer to The Guardian’s estimated market value.
However, the problem with this argument isn’t just that it’s a brazen counter-factual. Look deeper, and one can see that it’s actually self-defeating. Going into battle with it means acknowledging that there is an obscene difference between the value an “educated” person and an average person would assign Banksy’s work. It would mean agreeing that the “proper” prices (on an art world scale) for Banksy’s Central Park canvases depended not on commonly held beliefs or intrinsic worth, but rather on a set of intangibles that only a tiny sliver of the planet quite literally buys into. It would mean accepting that Banksy’s work - and by extension, much of the contemporary art market - is a swollen, gossamer-thin bubble inflated by the power of luxury branding. Which, in my view, is exactly Banksy’s point - and one of the reasons that I believe he is arguably the most incisive and vital critic the art world currently has.