Once again artwork by Banksy is coming to Miami during Art Basel, and it’s problematic.
Despite its name, the “Art of Banksy” exhibition — which will open at Magic City Studios December 1, just in time for Miami Art Week — was never authorized by its anonymous anti-capitalist vandal namesake, who reluctantly accepts the title of artist. But that's not stopping organizers from making a buck. Tickets will cost about $36 each, with a $2.50 discount for seniors and students.
And that's only the start of the ethical dilemma the exhibit poses.
For Banksy, art is more than creating objects for rich art collectors or even those interested in prints. After all, he has an uncomfortable relationship with the commercialization of his art, and Miami has seen it before. In 2012, Context Art Miami presented Banksy pieces of stenciled spray-painted works that had been removed from walls. They were not put up for sale; organizers said the exhibition was a response to an art collector’s attempt to sell them. (The exhibit asked: What context is lost when someone removes a work of protest from ruined buildings between Palestine and Israel?) Still, viewers had to pay to get into the exhibition to see the works.
Afterward, in an interview with New Times' former sister newspaper the Village Voice that same year, Banksy said via email, "Commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist. We're not supposed to be embraced in that way. 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 has never charged for his “exhibitions,” save for a £3 entry fee to Dismaland, a fairground that mocked Disney theme parks — and in that context, the price of admission became part of the art. But he has created commissioned art for money; for instance, the art for Blur’s album Think Tank. "I've done a few things to pay the bills, and I did the Blur album," he once stated. However, his work for everyone often confronts social concerns of injustice and poverty. In 2006, he literally had an elephant painted like wallpaper (it was nontoxic paint), which was brought into a room of his irreverent art (a replica of Michelangelo’s David wearing a bulletproof vest, for one) inside a Los Angeles warehouse. Just before that, while in California, he smuggled a life-sized mannequin dressed as a hooded Guantanamo Bay detainee into Disneyland and had it placed behind a fence at Big Thunder Mountain.
Banksy is much more than spray-painted stencils on buildings, though those, in their proper context (like a child sewing at a machine on a UK chain shop’s exterior wall to address child slave labor) can offer a confrontational statement.
But stripped of such statements, does the art have value? The art market certainly seems to think so.
Recently, Banksy went viral when, a few seconds after the close of a Sotheby’s auction, a framed original spray paint on canvas of Girl and Balloon (2006) began dropping through a hidden shredder at the bottom of its frame. It got stuck about two-thirds of the way through the frame. Banksy released a video that revealed this was a failed attempt at self-destruction, as the art should have ended up in pieces on the floor.
Beyond his control, however, is the fact that buzz around the stunt increased the value of the artwork. The work had already sold for three times its expected value. Word was, now that it had become a performance piece with an added layer of metaphor, its value jumped even more.
The “Art of Banksy” is curated by his former agent Steve Lazarides. Almost ten years ago, they had a falling out. On Banksy’s official website, the artist states, “Banksy is NOT... represented by Steve Lazarides or any other commercial gallery.” Though not organized by Lazarides, a similar exhibition in Moscow that opened July 2 of this year surprised Banksy. On Instagram, Banksy posted a screengrab of a conversation he had with someone he knows who broke the news to him.
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Banksy has since listed the Moscow show as well as several iterations of the "The Art of Banksy" as "fake" shows on his official website. A header for the page reads, "Members of the public should be aware there has been a recent spate of Banksy exhibitions none of which are consensual. They‘ve been organised entirely without the artist's knowledge or involvement. Please treat them accordingly." Then there are two columns of "REAL" and "FAKE" exhibitions. Miami is not on the list, but considering several of the "FAKE" exhibitions include tour stops of "The Art of Banksy," the list might be updated soon.
Lazarides has gone out of his way to be as legit as possible, noting “The Art of Banksy” features no art removed from walls. "I haven’t taken anything off the street," he told Time Out Melbourne about the exhibition back in 2016. He has said the works come from legit collectors who mostly have the art stored away, and he wants to share them. The official site for the exhibition, which has been traveling the world since early this year, notes that organizers will offer 50,000 free tickets to "at-risk youth and charities" in Miami to see the show.
But the generosity ends there. The exhibition arrives following a Toronto stop, where art critic John Semley called it "utterly, unashamedly vulgar." Someone is getting rich off this, as ticket sales are being managed by LiveNation. Ticket buyers for this event can also expect a gift shop, probably with key chains made in China. For an anti-capitalist artist, this exhibition should be considered the ultimate insult.