Banksy’s Auto-Da-Fé Strips Bare The Contemporary Art Market

By now most of you are familiar with the destruction of a painting by Contemporary artist Banksy that occurred at Sotheby’s last week. For those who missed it, a work by the graffiti guru depicting one of his best known images self-destructed by being shredded shortly after it was sold to an unknown buyer for $1.4 million. Sotheby’s claims that it had no idea that the shredding was going to occur, so we will go with that unless and until any conclusive evidence shows otherwise.

There are many rumors and theories bouncing about in cyberspace about this occurrence. Speculation is rife that Banksy himself, or one of his minions, was in the audience, and pushed some sort of remote control button to start the shredder. Many have noted that the destroyed work was not the original, which was a piece of graffiti on a wall long since destroyed, and that this piece was merely a recent copy specifically created for its destruction on camera.

Whatever you want to believe about the event, British art historian Bendor Grosvenor sums up the whole thing very succinctly by saying that the “happening”, if you will, boils down to one word: money. The Contemporary Art world, and in this I include most of the art establishment, is besotted with money over quality, showiness over substance. Perhaps ironically, this is rather reminiscent of the contrived, pricey, cloyingly sentimental Victorian paintings of children playing with puppies or gazing vacantly at bouquets of flowers, which the newly rich amassed to fill their homes in the second half of the 19th century.

Intentionally or no, Banksy’s auto-da-fé of his own work has shone what for many ought to be a very disturbing light on today’s art world. From the business side of things, reasonable voices have been quietly noting for some time that there is a bubble in Contemporary Art prices. ArtTactic, which provides research data concerning the art market, notes that confidence in the strength of the Contemporary Art market has fallen 24% this year, even while sales of Contemporary Art continue to increase. That bubble has been inflated largely by the art press, art institutions, and art dealers, so that art collectors with extraordinary resources at their disposal are, in many cases, buying largely for investment value rather than out of artistic appreciation.

For a more specific example of how this works, take a look at the downward slide in prices achieved for works by Damien Hirst, one of the most famous Contemporary artists in the world. It’s true that artists go in and out of fashion all the time, but if you bought a Hirst at the top of the market about a decade ago, you’re going to be taking a serious bath if you try to sell it now. Hirst, who for the past two decades has consistently diversified his holdings by investing in property and commercial venues to supplement his already considerable income, recently closed several business ventures in the British coastal resort region of Devon, even though a recent sale of “The Veil Paintings”, new work by Hirst shown at Gagosian L.A., did quite well. Coincidence? Or a reaction to declining market value?

Tied into the inflation of prices for Contemporary Art, as Jane Kallir pointed out in her (excellent) opinion piece for the Art Newspaper yesterday, is the intellectual dearth of connoisseurship in the art market and in the art press that has accompanied the ascendance of Contemporary Art to the sine qua non of current art acquisition trends. “In the past few decades,” she writes, “academia has largely abandoned traditional connoisseurship because it was too often tied to ‘great man’ narratives. Over the same period professional art criticism has been eclipsed by a journalistic preoccupation with glamour, scandal and money.”

As a result, at present the worth of a particular piece lies not so much in its subject matter, or in the artistic skill used in creating it, but rather in the notoriety of the artist (see, e.g., the entire oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiat.) The astronomical amounts of financial speculation involved in the Contemporary Art world, which has led to, inter alia, marketing materials being passed off as serious art criticism and scholarship, and the concomitant decline in art education for the general public, has poisoned the well for decades to come. I don’t see any short-term solution to the problem which Banksy has so succinctly demonstrated exists in the present art establishment, short of some sort of collective recognition of guilt and complicity resulting in a secular bonfire of the vanities.

Yet we need to be careful not to rub our hands too gleefully before such a flame. Not all Contemporary Art is terrible, and there are still highly-skilled, talented artists out there creating interesting work. Moreover, while much garbage was destroyed at the most famous Bonfire of the Vanities in history, instigated by Savonarola in Florence in 1497, many beautiful works of art were destroyed in that conflagration as well – including books by Boccaccio and Dante, and paintings by Botticelli and Fra Bartolomeo. Let’s not go down that road, again.


Should Graffiti Be Protected Art?

In what will prove to be a very interesting decision, however it comes out, a New York City developer is appealing a lower court ruling that ordered him to pay a group of artists $6.8 million in damages, for destroying graffiti which they created on his property.

Some decades ago, the developer had purchased a group of old factory buildings in Long Island City, Queens, with the intent of eventually redeveloping them or the land on which they sat. Beginning in the 1990’s, graffiti artists were given permission to rent studios in the crumbling complex, and to paint all over the buildings. Eventually the site became known as “5Pointz”, and attracted visitors and arts media coverage from all over the world.

As gentrification in recent years caused real estate prices to spiral into the stratosphere, Long Island City became one of the key epicenters of this trend, thanks to its large concentration of abandoned industrial and commercial structures. To take advantage of the market conditions, the decision was finally taken by the property owner to demolish 5Pointz, and redevelop the site with condos. The requisite public hearings and permit applications began in 2013, despite efforts by the graffiti makers and their supporters to stop it. As part of the redevelopment, most of the decades’ worth of graffiti that had accumulated at the site was whitewashed prior to demolition.

The “aerosol artists” [eyeroll] then sued claiming, inter alia, that they had not been given 90 days’ notice to take action with respect to the impending destruction of their art. To the surprise of many, a trial court agreed with the artists and awarded damages against the developer, who is now appealing. The basis for the appeal, in part, appears to be a somewhat powder keg argument that graffiti art should not be accorded the same protections as other types of art.

This isn’t an art law blog, and I don’t want to go into a lengthy discussion of the competing legal rationales involved in this case. That being said, whatever one thinks of graffiti art – more on that in a moment – the developer in this case should never have agreed to permit graffiti or artistic use of the complex in the first place, and certainly not for such a lengthy period of time. The developer even chose to incorporate some of the graffiti art which was not destroyed into the interior spaces of the new towers, and unsuccessfully attempted to trademark the term “5Pointz” – a moniker created by one of the graffiti artists – to market the property, arguing that he owned the term because he owned the buildings.

Apart from the idiosyncratic aspects of the 5Pointz case however, the larger issue here is the legitimization of graffiti art in general, which is why the outcome of this appeals process could be of greater significance than might at first appear. The proliferation of and acceptance of graffiti is a serious problem, and one which I maintain has been encouraged by the art establishment. The celebration of the subversive at the expense of basic property rights and the rule of law is the stock-and-trade of most Contemporary Art aficionados, from dealers and curators to reporters and collectors. And unfortunately, the rest of us who do not care for it must bear the consequences of their celebration of such efforts.

Back in August for example, someone decided to vandalize a Romanesque sculpture on one of the façades of the famous Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, using a blue permanent marker to paint over the face and part of the body of a saint with references to the band, Kiss. It took restorers hours of work, including the use of laser treatments, to remove the graffiti, and the event raised an outcry in the international art press. The Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, had just been cleaned after a lengthy restoration that took years and cost millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, just down the street at the Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporaneo (CGAC), Santiago’s museum of Contemporary Art, CGAC held an “artists’ workshop” this summer which included the work of – you probably already guessed it – a self-described “subversive” graffiti artist.

This is an all-too-cute example of how the art establishment seeks to have things both ways. The art world simultaneously sows the seeds for destruction of existing works of art and architecture by raising an artist such as Banksy to heights of international fame unimaginable to any petty criminal – excuse me, I mean, “aerosol artist” – before him. Galleries and museums, media and the art press, by their fawning coverage of “subversive” graffiti art, are, in effect, encouraging others to go out and try to become the next Banksy themselves.

In the case of many European cities and towns, not just Santiago de Compostela, this state of affairs has helped to create an environment in which the antisocial and illegal behavior of those who choose to defile both public and private property with their “talent” is a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut. It’s impossible to travel anywhere in Europe now without seeing graffiti slathered all over, from street signs to shop doors, and local authorities seem to have given up the effort to swiftly and effectively prosecute those who engage in it. The notion of catching an “aerosol artist” and forcing them to do hours of community service removing graffiti from bus shelters, overpasses, and the like seems too harsh a penalty for most Europeans to contemplate (though if my readers are aware of such penalties actually being enforced anywhere in the EU, by all means please share a link with us all in the comments section.)

Yet even as we may tut-tut at the inaction of the Europeans, we are rapidly reaching the same point in the U.S. Taking Amtrak into Philadelphia just a few weeks ago for example, I was shocked at how graffiti coverage begins many miles outside of town, well before one actually comes within sight of the city itself. It made me wonder whether there is a national shortage of whitewash or flat gray house paint which has gone hitherto reported by the media.

No doubt some of the graffiti that we see in depressed areas of cities like Philadelphia is the work of those who are, in effect, crying for help. These are people living in desperate, dangerous conditions, with no hope for a better future, and they live a life of suffering which most of us cannot even begin to imagine. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it at least explains it; to be fair, rational adults, we need to acknowledge this.

That being said however, I suspect that a research statistician would be able to prove that most of the current crop of graffiti that we see is in fact of the, “Aren’t I cool? Now where’s my phone so I can snap a picture of this for my social media accounts before I go back to designing my next tattoo on my laptop,” variety. In fact, if you follow any art accounts on Instagram, you’re very much aware that the site is filled with images from events and exhibitions in which members of the Millennial bourgeoisie use graffiti to express their frustration at…I’m not sure what, exactly. Their local Whole Foods being out of avocados today?

Who knows how long the 5Pointz case will take to grind its way through the court system, or how high any further appeals might go, but the end result is absolutely going to be worth keeping an eye on. Will there be a narrow ruling, tailored to the particular circumstances of the case? Or will some appellate court create a broad precedent by which all future property owners, if they do not immediately take action to remove any trace of graffiti, will be stuck paying damages to “aerosol artists” if they attempt to remove their work at a later date? Stay tuned for developments.


Florence To Tourists: Become A Criminal, Will Train

In the beauty contest of stupid ideas, this one has to be a contender for Miss Universe.

The Opera Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, which oversees a number of major tourist attractions in the Tuscan capital, has launched an app called Autography, which allows visitors to leave virtual graffiti on some of the city’s most iconic monuments. The idea came about as a way to combat real-life graffiti, which the non-profit has to spend considerable time and money scrubbing clean. Users will be able to scribble their names, messages, and so on onto virtual images of Florence’s Cathedral, Baptistery, and other buildings using a program called Autography, which promises to store their scrawls in a permanent database that will be accessible to other visitors. The graffiti, it is noted, will be screened – i.e. curated – for anything in the way of “insults, unauthorized material or judged inappropriate.”

The reader will need to bear with me, because this is a truly radical concept, but surely such graffiti is, by its very nature, insulting, unauthorized, and inappropriate, regardless of its content.

Here in the Nation’s Capital, we don’t seem to suffer from the same degree of loutishness in our public spaces, at least not yet. The notion that one would go down to the Jefferson Memorial during the Cherry Blossom Festival, and find all of the pillars tagged, is practically unimaginable. When such acts do occur, they are appropriately dealt with.

Yet if you have visited Europe in recent years, it seems as though the battle between weak authorities and brazen criminals was conceded to the latter long ago. Practically every church door is covered with graffiti, and shop owners now go to the trouble of paying miscreants to come and spray-paint their roll-down doors, so as to try to reduce the level of cleanup they will have to do later. It reminds me of how the later, more decadent Roman emperors would bribe barbarian tribes, in order to keep them from sacking Rome.

Part of the ill-informed philosophy behind efforts such as Autography, of course, stems from the artistic establishment’s lionization of guerilla graffiti artists such as Bansky, whose appeal I have never understood. Creating art by spray-painting a photoshopped image from a template onto public or private property is hardly the work of genius. The tolerance or in some cases active encouragement of this practice has led to a kind of mutually assured destruction by government and the arts, in which common decency, historic preservation, and the rule of law are forced to take a back seat to expressions of personal selfishness.

Will the Opera’s plan work? Logic would dictate that those who are most of a mind to place graffiti on a cathedral bell tower are highly unlikely to say to themselves and their cohort, “Hey, let’s go check out that new app where we can pretend to draw our names on a wall.” Moreover, the risk here is that those who would never normally engage in such behavior will now try it, and find the experience so intoxicating that they will subsequently want to try it out in real life. Virtual reality, after all, is no substitute for experience.

Most of us do not view defacing public or private property as a laudable activity. It is a behavior which demonstrates a fundamental lack of charity toward others, which is particularly ironic in a house of Christian worship. For while ultimately the fault for this galactically stupid idea lies with the Opera, the Archdiocese of Florence should be of ashamed of itself for even consenting to be a part of such an ill-conceived plan, in which the walls of its sacred buildings are to become the proving ground for future antisocial nonsense.


Graffiti inside the lantern of the Duomo, Florence