The Banksy Problem

Seven works of Street Art by Banksy are to be auctioned at a London Hotel today. (See the story)

If you are not into art, or not into street art, should you care? 

I think the 'Banksy Problem' is not about art, but about all forms of creativity. It is about 'market' and 'non-market' debate, and the ideas of how to live. Today's story brings out the issues involved in sharp relief.

So here is a celebrated, but unknown artist, who would sneak in the middle of the night and create a graffiti. No one really knows what he, or indeed she, thinks about this latest auction. The hypocrisy of the auctioneer is evident: He is not doing it for money, he says, but to save the building owners who are fearful that with a Banksy on their wall, their buildings will be listed Grade 2 (a building of special interest where every effort should be made to preserve them). He further adds that he does not approve of street art, and considers it illegal. 

I am wondering what he may be doing auctioning the artwork - would you be selling drugs when you consider drug usage illegal - and why he would have to go through the troubles of auction, when he does not want to make money: If only he wanted to save the building owners trouble, he could have easily gone to a museum and given it to them.

Indeed, illegal or not, the artworks are lucrative, and the 'No Ball Game' one will probably be sold for several millions. There will be some rich individual who would love to show off their taste, and their wealth, by privately owning a Banksy, left on the street by an unknown artist who did not, apparently, do it for money. 

Instead of seeing this as an illegal art being sold legally, should this be seen as a legitimate aesthetic expression being privatised illegally? Indeed, there is no 'legal' basis of saying so: Graffiti is illegal, though widely practiced; private art collection is legal, and widely practiced. So, there is not a court of law which will uphold public's right to art, if challenged. But does the 'Banksy Problem', particularly accentuated by the greedy auctioneers and private collectors, make us think about issues such as creativity, expression, and the limits of the markets?

Private art may indeed be two way thing: A painter paints to sell it, and a collector buys for a great deal of money. In this, the equation is straightforward: The greater the money, the greater the art - the better known the painter. Banksy, however, subverts this, possibly intentionally, creating art not for money and then letting the private scramble happen. This act, I shall argue, exposes the assumptions behind valuing the art, and questions the morality of privately owning it. For example, is this the property of the building owner once the art is left on his premises? And, indeed, they are acting in the full knowledge, indeed in the fear of, such property being deemed important to public, and, therefore, upholding their economic rights as the building owner and undermining their duties to the community: How far is this moral or justified? And finally, that private collector, who would show off the Banksy in his garden soon, should he be praised or shamed - for privatising public property?

I am no lawyer, and no curator of street art: The 'Banksy Problem' creates a creative anguish in me as a private citizen. It shows me the dubious, even hypocritical, morality of the market we praise so much, and even the limitations of the laws we live by. It effectively challenges the morality of private art collection, and puts it in direct conflict with public's right to art, if there is such a thing. This is why I think this may be a problem for everyone.


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