There’s something ironic and unsettling about the way The Art of Banksy—a traveling exhibition showcasing the largest collection of works by the globally famous yet still anonymous British street artist—cheerfully boasts of having “$35 million worth of Banksy art” on display.
It’s certainly true. Corey Ross’ Starvox Exhibits and collaborator Steve Lazarides have indeed assembled a beefy collection of original Banksys—a commodity that fetches big bucks in offshore deals and at auctions. Banksquiat. Boy and Dog in Stop and Search, inspired by Jean Michel-Basquiat, heads to auction in Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale today (May 17), with an estimate between $8 million and $12 million.
The artist’s auction record is $29.5 million for Love is in the Bin, a piece of art that was essentially created live when the closing of the Sotheby’s sale of Girl with Balloon triggered a shredder in the frame. A video subsequently posted by the artist cleared Sotheby’s of any foreknowledge but also implied the shredder malfunctioned; the artist’s intention was to destroy the work entirely.
Consider that in 2007, shortly after a Sotheby’s London sale of three Banksy works, the artist updated their website to prominently feature Morons, a piece featuring buyers in an auction house bidding on a framed print that reads ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU MORONS ACTUALLY BUY THIS SHIT.’ Fast forward to 2021, when Christie’s held a sale entitled Banksy: I can’t believe you morons actually buy this sh*t that included a copy of Morons.
If there’s still any question about how the artist feels about their work being commoditized, let those questions be put to bed. “Graffiti art has a hard enough life as it is, before you add hedge-fund managers wanting to chop it out and hang it over the fireplace,” Banksy said in a 2013 statement issued via their publicist prior to yet another auction featuring their work. “For the sake of keeping all street art where it belongs, I’d encourage people not to buy anything by anybody, unless it was created for sale in the first place.”
Ross and Lazarides (Banksy’s former spokesman now famously estranged from the artist) aren’t selling Banksys. Instead, they’re selling a Banksy experience—one that’s likely raking in a tidy profit. The Art of Banksy, which features more than 110 “original and authenticated” works by the artist including Flower Thrower, Rude Copper and three variations of Girl with Balloon, has toured 15 cities and attracted 1.5 million viewers. The exhibition’s new 2,000 square meter Regent Street space will house not only prints and canvases (many of which may have been purchased at the Banksy: I can’t believe you morons actually buy this sh*t auction) but also sketches and unknown works that, according to the exhibition website, were created by the artist “for friends, colleagues and lovers.”
Some of those friends, colleagues and lovers apparently contributed more than just art to the show. Beyond the works on view, The Art of Banksy promises viewers personal stories from “close associates of the artist” (possibly including printer Ben Eine) who explain how Banksy planned and executed some of their most high-profile street art projects—and how they’ve managed to stay anonymous for so long.
Tickets went on sale today for The Art of Banksy, which opens July 5. Would Banksy, famous for placing their work in public places for people to experience for free and someone who has notably called out galleries for showing their work without approval… approve? Do we even need to ask? But let’s say we do. A representative for the artist has referred to the exhibition as “an unauthorized traveling show organized by unscrupulous profiteers.” And Banksy’s website states, unequivocally: “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.”
That doesn’t mean that fans of Banksy and their avowed commitment to the democratization of art should necessarily stay away. They should, however, go into the unauthorized exhibition with eyes wide open and their expectations tempered. What makes seeing an original Banksy so special for most of us is the incongruity of the work in situ and the still novel and exciting idea that street art can be art. Strolling past a hundred Banksys hanging in tidy rows before exiting through the gift shop is a very different experience.