Why Banksy’s art stunt is eco­nomic ge­nius

Guer­rilla artist’s true tal­ent is in ex­pos­ing the eco­nom­ics of art

Sunday Times - - Careers - By LEONID BERSHIDSKY

● Based on ex­per­i­ments con­ducted by him­self and oth­ers around his work, Banksy, the fa­mous street artist, could write an eco­nom­ics dis­ser­ta­tion on the mone­tary value of art. In a way, that un­writ­ten pa­per could be his crown­ing achieve­ment.

Banksy made head­lines ear­lier this month when, mo­ments af­ter a 2006 framed copy of his Girl with Bal­loon was auc­tioned at Sotheby’s in Lon­don for $1.4m (R20.5m), the art­work be­gan to self-de­struct by means of a re­mote-con­trolled, me­chan­i­cal pa­per shred­der that had been built into the frame.

The stunt was Banksy’s lat­est con­tri­bu­tion to the em­pir­i­cal study of the value of art. Through it, he tested the na­ture of de­mand at the high end of the mar­ket.

The likely re­sult will be that the art­work’s clever par­tial de­struc­tion (the lower part of the pic­ture now hangs pret­tily out of the frame, evenly cut into nar­row strips) will only in­crease its value, since the hap­pen­ing was so pub­lic, and the stunned re­ac­tions of peo­ple in the auc­tion room have been cap­tured on video.

Now, we have the auc­tion price be­fore the shred­ding — and we’ll likely see a higher post-shred­ding price, too, putting a clear, sep­a­rate mar­ket value on the story be­hind the ob­ject, some­thing no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to do, more dif­fi­cult even than pric­ing pure per­for­mance art.

Banksy is prob­a­bly the only artist in his­tory for whose work such a wide range of mar­ket prices, from less than zero to mil­lions of dol­lars, has been doc­u­mented.

When he started out, his work was some­times seen as van­dal­ism and painted over, like any other graf­fiti. (This still hap­pens on oc­ca­sion: last month, the new owner of a shop in Bris­tol started paint­ing over an early Banksy work, stop­ping only when he was told of its prove­nance.)

Even­tu­ally, peo­ple started lift­ing Banksy work off walls and sell­ing it, some­times for hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars. On a trip track­ing Banksy’s sten­cils in Pales­tine, I heard the story of a build­ing owner who had made more money that way than if he’d sold the house.

But Banksy hasn’t just ac­cepted the irony of his star­dom as a stroke of luck or an as­ser­tion of higher jus­tice. He’s stud­ied it.

In 2013, he set up a stall in New York’s Cen­tral Park, where a se­nior ci­ti­zen ped­dled signed orig­i­nals, worth tens of thou­sands of

It’s hard not to view fi­nan­cial re­im­burse­ment as a badge of self-serv­ing medi­ocrity


dol­lars at auc­tion, for $60 apiece. He made a grand to­tal of $420 in a day.

The rea­son, of course, was that to the passers-by, peo­ple who’d ei­ther never heard of Banksy or who wouldn’t have imag­ined that he would sell his works so cheaply, there was no story be­hind the im­ages.

If Banksy were an econ­o­mist rather than a satir­i­cal street artist, he might have wrapped his find­ings into a model — per­haps like the one in Moshe Adler’s purely the­o­ret­i­cal 1985 pa­per that sought to ex­plain “why a hi­er­ar­chy in in­come could ex­ist without a hi­er­ar­chy in tal­ent”.

Adler wrote: “The main ar­gu­ment was that the phe­nom­e­non of star­dom ex­ists where con­sump­tion re­quires knowl­edge. The ac­qui­si­tion of knowl­edge by a con­sumer in­volves dis­cus­sion with other con­sumers, and a dis­cus­sion is eas­ier if all par­tic­i­pants share com­mon prior knowl­edge. If there are stars, that is artists that ev­ery­body is fa­mil­iar with, a con­sumer would be bet­ter off pa­tro­n­is­ing these stars even if their art is not su­pe­rior to that of oth­ers.”

It’s not of­ten that one finds a star will­ing to con­trib­ute as know­ingly and cre­atively to this the­ory as Banksy does.

“When you look at how so­ci­ety re­wards so many of the wrong peo­ple, it’s hard not to view fi­nan­cial re­im­burse­ment as a badge of self-serv­ing medi­ocrity,” Banksy once wrote. Con­tempt can be a strong mo­tive for ex­plo­ration.

In a way, it’s a shame the im­ages can no longer be sep­a­rated from the eco­nomic ex­per­i­ments. Once, they were fresh and sur­pris­ing — and made bet­ter tat­toos. Now, you’d need to be Justin Bieber to get one of the bal­loon girl.

But per­haps Banksy’s true tal­ent is less in his paint­ing and more in his re­veal­ing the ways in which the world in­ter­acts with art and artists.

The body of bit­ter­sweet knowl­edge he’s build­ing up will be his legacy when the last of his sten­cils has faded from the wall. Bloomberg

Pic­ture: Sky News

Banksy’s ’Girl with Bal­loon’ goes through the se­cret shred­der af­ter its auc­tion at Sotheby’s.

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