In the fight between art and commerce, commerce has won.
That's the case for Banksy, at least, arguably the world's most famous street artist who's long taken measures to devalue and therefore preserve his publicly accessible street art. The artist's tactics haven't stopped high-end buyers from expressing an interest in purchasing his work, which has led to entire walls being cut from buildings and put on display at art galleries, fairs, and auctions.
The latest example of this trend is coming to Miami next week, when Banksy's Kissing Coppers is auctioned off at a street art exhibition presented by Fine Art Auctions Miami.
Kissing Coppers originally appeared on the side of the Prince Albert Pub in Brighton, England. The wall, weighing about 7,000 pounds, is one of several pieces to be displayed at FAAM's Street Art Exhibition and Auction taking place at LMNT during President's Day weekend, opening Friday, February 14 and closing Tuesday, February 18. Other artists represented at the exhibit include Speedy Graphito, Bambi, Basquiat, Keith Haring, Shepard Fairey, Retna, Lady Aiko, Faile, SEEN, and Kenny Scharf, all of whose work will be auctioned off along with Banksy's.
"Street art is a narrative art rooted within our every day lives," said FAAM President Frederic Thut in a statement. "This street art auction will not only show iconic works from leading artists like Banksy but also will feature work from local artists from Wynwood Miami." Local artists including KAZILLA, HOX, ABSTRK, TREK6, Jeff Dekal, Ruben Ubiera and Diana Contreras will also participate in the exhibit. Admission is free.
Banksy, however, has a complicated history with the sale and showing of his work outside of its original context. In December of 2012, Art Miami, an annual art fair that pops up in Midtown during Art Basel, announced that its new sister fair, CONTEXT, would show a series of Banksy walls when it opened for the first time that year. Many in Miami were thrilled; plenty of locals never had the chance to see work by the artist in person. But others questioned the ethics of removing a piece of street art from its original installation in public in order to be shown at an event for $10 a head. Some in the arts community called for a boycott of the fair.
But if that boycott took place, it wasn't terribly successful; Art Miami reported record numbers of attendees in 2012.
Just a few months later, in February of 2013, a planned auction of Banksy work by FAAM was canceled after residents of the London neighborhood where the work first appeared protested. It seemed like a victory for Banksy, who admitted to having an uneasy relationship with the idea of selling his work in an exclusive interview with New Times' sister paper The Village Voice. "Commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist," he said.
But the wall originally intended to be auctioned in Miami was later sold in London. And in the year since, outrage about the removal of art intended for a public audience for private financial gain has waned. Art Miami brought Banksy walls back to Miami during Art Basel in 2013, and the art world barely yawned.
Now, Banksy's work will appear in an exhibit with other well-known street artists, which effectively legitimizes the practice of taking graffiti art from the people and moving it into private homes and institutions. Again, many Miamians will have the chance to see works of art by famous artists in a way they previously couldn't experience them. But the ethical problems remain: removing a piece of graffiti art from its context changes the perception and impact of the art itself; and then there's the questionable morality of profiting from an artist's work without sale of that work benefiting the artist himself. Moreover, it's an invitation to property owners to cash in on works displayed on their own buildings. This is especially dangerous in Miami, which owes much of its growing art world credibility to the colorful murals that decorate Wynwood and other art-friendly neighborhoods around the city.
For now, only big names like Banksy have to worry about property owners selling off chunks of their own buildings to art dealers. But what if Wynwood's warehouse landscape becomes pockmarked with patched-over wall excavations as its property owners sell them to the highest bidder?
For more on the exhibit and auction, visit faamiami.com.
Follow Ciara LaVelle on Twitter @ciaralavelle.
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