Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Laughing all the way to the Banksy





"Let's go to the Banksy opening!"

My Chelsea friend loves gallery openings – free food and a chance to jolt your mind out of autopilot, even if "I could paint that."

Ever since Banksy's reverse art-smuggling stunt at the big museums he's become the coolest of the cool, and ironically for him, a commercial success.

"Think I could buy one?" I asked as we slushed our way through the first dirty snow of the year.

"Well, Angelina Jolie bought one," said my friend, which more or less answered my question.

Rounding the corner on W27th Street, we were met by a long line stretching from the Vanina Holasek Gallery to a vanishing point. Bundles of clothing stood shivering, waiting, grim faces and rubber boots, to see some iconic screenprints.

"I've never seen any opening with a line like this," said my friend. "Never."

The crowd, for the most part, were young and low key. Hoodies under duffels, no Gucci or fur or Angelina Jolies. Just what you'd expect, given Banksy's personal style, which we can only deduce from his work since he doesn't do the in-person thing, rather like the brilliant Gorillaz. I doubt the celebs needed to queue with the cattle, there didn't look to be too much concern of a bidding war with this crowd. Fans were being let in 8 at a time. A woman who looked like Big Press waved around a big camera.

We decided to hop a cab to the free opening of the New Museum at the Bowery and try later …

Monday, when all galleries were closed, I ventured down to the gallery just out of curiosity, and noticed the door cracked open. The gallery was empty of people, save for two staff members perched in a box overhead, presiding over the space like judges.

I won't go into describing Banksy's anti-war, anti-capitalistic "art" - you can update yourself in a second by googling him - that's how wildly popular he's become.

The first thing that struck me was the appropriateness of the gallery, a creaking old garret of a room in an area of Manhattan where white, glassy, pristine spaces rule. I can't tell whether it was expertly cobbled together just for this show and will return to its former generic and anemic self. The only thing better would have been to stage the exhibition in an alley, complete with rain and grit spattering the works.

The second thing was the strangeness of seeing his subversive messages nicely framed, numbered and signed just like respectable, hermetically sealed art.

The third was the sticker-shock – sans the stickers. Scrawled under each work on the wall in lead pencil were $5000. $15,000. $20,000. $30,000. $75,000. $150,000. $200,000 and upwards.

This is the guy that smuggled a preserve beetle wearing missiles for anklets into the Museum of Natural History, a Warhol-like soup can into another prominent gallery and a rock painted with a cave man pushing a shopping cart (which has since been added to the British Museum's permanent collection). His stealth art was dutifully dusted and straightened on the walls by museum staff members until someone actually looked at what he was dusting and blew the whistle.

It reminds me of Malcolm McLaren describing a shop with a giant great hole you had to jump across to enter, and other uninviting customer experiences, flouting all the normal "rules" about how a store should be – apparently celebs like Jack Nicholson flew across the country just to jump over it.

Really well-executed wit - from his assault on some highbrow museums
As if to drive the point home, witness Banksy's image of a stuffy art auction with an ornately framed "work" on an easel that says "I can’t believe you morons buy this shit".

"He just sold a piece at Sotheby's for $600,000," said Richard, of the Artifical Gallery, who is staging this show.

I stumbled upon Richard on climbing to the very stop of some precariously narrow and creaky stairs. A tall Brit dressed in black (of course), who co-owns the online gallery and had assembled this collection for sale in NY.

If he was giggling hysterically all the way to the banksy, he didn't show it.

"Someone just bought this one on the weekend for $240,000, I'm kind of sad to see it go," he said, of a silk-screened rat presiding over a tank, with neither Rich nor rat looking too sad.

Setting aside the sticker shock, I thought the scrawled-on-wall prices were a stroke of genius. I was sure a jaded fan had whipped out a pencil and done it as a kind of Banksyfied joke. Perhaps I can own a Banksy poster for a couple of hundred after all? No such luck. The catharsis of these real and hard prices for a once-was 14-year old tyke with a spray can was a compelling artistic experience in of itself.

"Yes, you use to be able to buy a poster for a hundred or so, but with celebs buying them up, including Banksy's mate Damien Hirst, prices have gone through the roof," said Richard. Hirst, a very established darling of the subversive-loving set, sold the entire contents of this concept shop Pharmacy for a cool $14m British pounds.

"He's a brilliant marketer," said Richard. With friends like Damien, who needs a trust fund!

I learned a lot about the art peddling world from Richard. He told me that Banksy is one of the very few artists for whom there is a market for unsigned prints. Of 500 duplicates made, Banksy will sign say, the first 150. "Unsigned" means they're numbered but lack his signature - $5000. "Signed" means he's whipped out his pencil and written 'Banksy' on the exact same piece. $20,000+. The screen that makes the duplicates is then, apparently, destroyed.

"Signed and unsigned used to be much the same, it's only the public demanding signatures that has driven prices up."

"So what if I take it out of the frame, and copy his signature on it?" I asked, the unscrupulous lobe of my brain working overtime.

"Ah, these days they're all archived and recorded, so it can be traced and verified."

So you see, dear reader, if we whine that we can't afford an artwork, it's only we only have ourselves to blame – we are driving prices up with our obsession for things like signatures. It's all about consensus.

I felt a bit sorry for the long line of Banksy fans in the snow, who love his work but can no longer afford to own even a torn off corner of it ($2000?) as they might have done a few slaps of the silk screen squeegee ago. His work is now like that of NY graffiti icon Revs, who's every move is hacked, wrenched and Skilsaw'd off walls and sold on Ebay for thousands. For me, the physical location of this kind of art is part of the art; removal of it should render it worthless, like an amputated thumb.

This shot borrowed from the original article about his coup - a couple of friends staging a noisy gay lovers spat while a Banksy painting is installed. Apparently museum staff dusted it for quite a while before noticing it was something less romantic, like this ...

But how would an artist make money, then? My sister once said she feels an original work of art, once created, should be treated like a public property in perpetuity, that cannot be owned by anyone but the artist, and that duplicates should be made at an affordable cost that lets people bring that artist into their lives. Recording artists do it that way - you don't pay $100,000 for a copy of a song, you just download it off iTunes or buy the CD. Volume is what makes money, and the wonders of duplication enable it to be that way. Sotheby's just propagates one of the biggest ills of society that Banksy's messages try to underline - greed. It's all just a huge irony, but that's the sick world we live in.

As if to reach out to his fans, Banksy's website contains a number of hi-resolution prints you can download to make your own t-shirts, prints, mugs and so forth. It's ironic that even with this generous offer, the street price of his work is skyrocketing. In fact, perhaps it's because of this generous offer that it's happening - no doubt some marketing egghead is writing a PhD thesis about it as I type.

I'd like to see him sell stickers, temporary tattoos, iron ons and other items right beside his high priced works.

He could start his own art school for disadvantaged kids and middle managers in carpeted cubicles dying to express themselves.

He's already doing a show in Europe where all proceeds will go to a worthy cause, said Richard.

Then, after he's made enough cash to buy a brownstone in Knightsbridge, an island in the Caribbean and an entire building to graffiti in the Bronx, he could make the ultimate artistic statement, and pull the pin. Yup, just when his name is put up in fine lettering on the glass walls of the Guggenheim and the party invites to the White House start flowing, he could render all his art worthless – have signed and numbered editions pour out in the zillions from a factory in China, join with Fisher-Price to make graffiti art kits you can stick on beige-colored walls and peel off safely later; collaborate with McDonald's to sell soda pop in glasses graffiti'd with a defecating rat.

Then, kill himself off in an alley somewhere and create a whole new identity.

If he can pull that off, he'll go down in my little black book as one hell of a clever man.

I blogged about Banksy in a more businessy sense on FastCompany.com - but it's been nuked. Oh well!

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