‘Guerrilla art’ that costs a bomb? The writing’s on the wall, says Waldemar Januszczak
You must have noticed that as prices rise on this mad planet of ours, values descend. I keep reading things that convince me the art world has gone completely bonkers. The other day, the record producer David Geffen sold a Jackson Pollock for $140m. Yes, $140m, or £73m. For a painting. I admire Jackson Pollock as much as any man, but in a world where a qualified nurse in Yorkshire earns £17,900 per year, no painting, whoever it is by, should ever cost £73m. The amount of money being spent on art today has passed through the realms of mere obscenity and entered the previously uncharted universe of cosmic insanity.
To my eyes, the least likely participant in this insane orgy of acquisition is the graffiti artist Banksy. How Banksy, this rebellious Robin Hood of the spray can, the rebel from Bristol who started smearing graffiti onto passing trains at the age of 14, managed to get himself sucked into the mad whirlpool of contemporary art prices is possibly the weirdest art mystery of the 21st century so far. In his own terminology, Banksy is supposed to be a guerrilla artist. His shtick is supposed to be dodging the police and illegally depositing amusing examples of graffitied agitpop around the city at night. He’s an outlaw, a system-smasher, a thorn in the Establishment’s side, the painting Pimpernel.
Yet at the London auctions last month, a Banksy spray-painting called Bombing Middle England went for £102,000, a new auction record for him. The next day, another piece went for £96,000. In LA a couple of months ago, Angelina Jolie spent £200,000 or so on his work. Brad Pitt collects him too. As do Keanu Reeves and Jude Law.
All this is deeply confusing, of course, not just in the Middle England that Banksy is supposed to be bombing, but out here, too, in the unaligned sections of the thinking art world. Banksy’s progress has now reached that dangerous and fascinating point where separating the facts about him from the fictions is becoming really difficult. There was a story in the papers recently claiming that Prince Harry had commissioned a Banksy to give to Chelsy as a token of his love. According to the artist’s website, this is untrue. Which is a relief. But did I think it was impossible the moment I read it? I certainly did not.
Which is why I ventured into Knightsbridge last week, turned left past Harrod’s, went down Pont Street, past Louis Vuitton, past Hermãs, veered right onto Walton Street, past the Meissen porcelain shop, till I reached the Andipa Gallery, the only gallery in London designed in the Spanish pueblo style, where, believe it or not, they currently have a Banksy show. Six months ago, this would have been shocking. Not any more.
The type of art Banksy makes – agitpop – is probably the grooviest sector of the art market right now. Agitpop is protest art with a smile on its face. Red Nose rebellion. Comic Belief. A typical Banksy will show two furtive squaddies in combat gear painting a peace sign on a wall in Iraq. Make ‘em smile and you’ll make ‘em think, seems to be the strategy of the agitpopster. And, in fiscal terms at least, it’s working terribly well.
The Andipa Gallery is offering lots of Banksys for up to £70,000 a picture. That’s what is being asked for a stencil of a protester throwing flowers at the police, produced in an edition of 25. Laugh Now and Keep It Real, two spray paintings of monkeys holding up signs, are both on sale for £50,000. Kids on Guns is also from an edition of 25, and costs £45,000. You do the maths.
But just in case Banksy sues me – the richer our artists become, the more litigious they seem to grow – I should immediately point out that he himself is not responsible for the Andipa exhibition, or its image-ruining decor, or its price scales. When he found out I was reviewing the show, he e-mailed me this message: “If I was conspiracy-minded, I’d say this was a plot to destroy my last shred of credibility. But then I do a good enough job of that myself.”
My guess is that the gallery started vacuuming up his prints when his prices began rocketing and is now selling them on at a handy profit, as galleries do. While I was there, I overheard a fascinating conversation on this very topic between the chap behind the desk and a potential Banksy buyer. The gallery guy was adamant that it is wrong to think of the huge sums being charged for Banksy as unreasonable, because all that is happening is what he called “positive catchup”. Come again? “Banksy’s prices are being pushed up at this accelerated rate in order to catch up to where they should really be in the market.” So the real mystery of Banksy is not why his work costs so much today, but why it cost so little yesterday, when nobody had heard of him. I love it.
The truth here is that everyone is squirming. Banksy is squirming because his work has been robbed of its rightful meaning by its abrupt transformation into chic gallery fodder. The gallery is squirming because, although it might enjoy shifting all these pictures, no amount of gallery insouciance can disguise the fact that among the enemies being attacked by Banksy is the gallery system itself.
His chief achievement, and I believe it to be a mammoth one, was finding a way to operate so successfully outside the art world. That striking image that went up overnight on the walls of the Roundhouse, of the black maid lifting up a wall and sweeping stuff under the carpet, wasn’t just a witty encapsulation of the Aids situation in Africa, it was also a terrific piece of urban design that used the city as its gallery.
Banksy fans will recognise most of the images here from their subversive original appearance on the streets or in those interestingly makeshift shows he mounts. There’s Queen Victoria sitting on a lap-dancer’s head. There’s Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald leading the napalmed Vietnamese girl on a grim victory parade. There’s the girl clutching the nuclear missile. These are images that look very right in a Banksy context. And very wrong in here.
Speaking of Mickey Mouse, I’ve recently been making a film about the pioneering Edwardian artist Walter Sickert, and one of the sequences was supposed to be set at the Lyceum theatre, off the Strand, where Sickert worked briefly as an actor under the theatre’s founder, Sir Henry Irving. As soon as we began filming, two officials with clipboards came out to tell us we weren’t allowed to feature the front of the building because Disney’s The Lion King was playing there, and Disney did not allow any filming of the theatre without its permission. I explained that we were making a film about Sickert’s work with Irving, and that the last thing we wanted to feature was The Lion King. Besides, we were on the other side of the road. But the clipboardoffi-cials were adamant. Our right to film on the streets of London was outweighed here by Disney’s right to stop us doing so.
I mention this now in my investigation of the confusion between corporate truths and artistic ones that is currently continuing across the art world because I see that the Disney corporation has expanded its reach still further by commissioning two Brazilian artists called the Campana Brothers to make a set of chairs decorated with Disney characters that has gone on show at the Albion gallery.
The chairs are ghastly. One is made entirely of scores of stuffed Mickey Mouses writhing like a tin of maggots. Another mixes writhing Mickeys with writhing Minnies, and the third features Pluto as well. They all look really stupid. Yet they are on sale for between £70,000 and £130,000 each. Now, tell me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the idea of asking £130,000 for a chair made of stuffed Disney toys even madder than paying £73m for a Pollock? Or am I losing it too?