Street Art Isn’t a Crime Until Somebody Steals It: Banksy in Miami

Banksy, “Haight Street Rat” (2010), from San Francisco (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

I’m finding it a little hard to feel upset at the Banksy “exhibition” that was on display in Art Miami and its sister fair CONTEXT this past week. Others have found reasons to boycott the affair, and Marc and Sara Schiller, two street art aficionados I respect, wrote on Wooster Collective that they are calling out the Miami Art Fair for letting all this happen: “Knowing that Banksy has condemned the show, they could have easily rejected the exhibition and not legitimized the stolen artwork. But they didn’t. And this tells you a lot about what their motivations are.”

RJ Rushmore of Vandalog echoed the Schillers’ sentiment and then highlighted the possible monetary motive for the display:

… as the Schillers note, Banksy’s best work really only works when experienced in context in which it was intended (whether that intended context be on the street or in a gallery), and bringing these pieces indoors probably makes most of them much much much weaker than they were on the street.

This is certainly not the first time we’ve seen someone trying to make a buck off Banksy and it’s reasons like this that Banksy created Pest Control, a controversial committee which determines the authenticity of Banksy works on the market and which refuses to authenticate any street works or works not originally intended for resale.

Banksy, “Stop and Search” (2007), from Bethlehem, West Bank

I find the rejection of the display of these five iconic Banksy’s and the resulting anger a little misplaced. Certainly viewing the works in their original context would be desirable, but it’s also nearly impossible for most people. The work, like most street art, is often placed on private property, and in the process, the artist ceases to own it. The fate of the work is left in the hands of others, not the artist. This is the deal; it’s street art, after all. Where that work ends up is anyone’s guess. There was the obstacle of the art fair ticket price, but any American museumgoer is accustomed to paying to see art. Yes, these works were once free to see but so is almost all art before it enters a fair or museum. Then again, this is about other issues, in my opinion.

Street art by its very nature is an act of faith in the public trust. You place the work — most often illegally — in public, and you kiss it goodbye. A photo online is usually the only residue of most of the ephemeral work. As proof of this concept, all you have to do is look back to the 1970s and ’80s, which was a rich period for street art, and realize that little, if any, of the work from the streets remains. This, I believe, is unfortunate.

Keith Haring’s subway drawings exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum

Not all the work was lost, though, and this isn’t the first time that work taken from the street has been exhibited outside of its original context. Keith Haring’s white chalk on black paper subway drawings of the late 1970s and early ’80s were a critical part of his rise in the public’s imagination. Many people tore down the works from the streets, particularly in the subway stations, immediately after they were made, and some of those people had the intention to sell them ASAP. In recent years, those works have been showcased in high-end galleries, like the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, and earlier this year, the Brooklyn Museum’s Keith Haring show featured a whole room of them. I don’t think many people would argue that these works don’t deserve to be in either of those places.

But let’s not mistake the Banksy show for what it is and what it isn’t. It is no longer street art; it is a historic artifact much in the way Assyrian murals stripped of their original temples and public buildings are displayed in museums the world over. This is history, and this needs to be preserved.

The popularity of Banksy, I would argue, has propelled him into the realm of a cultural icon worthy of historic preservation. He’s the only artist since Warhol that has successfully become a household name, more so than Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. What we’re really arguing about, I believe, is how his legacy should survive and what role the artist should have in those decisions.

“Stop and Search” in situ in Bethlehem, West Bank (via Wooster Collective) and the back of the mural at Art Miami

From what I saw, the crowds at Art Miami and CONTEXT were predominantly delighted to see the murals at the fair, though one colleague mentioned that she spotted a small sign on Saturday placed in front of the “Stop and Search” mural that read “This does not belong here.” She was confused by the message, but quickly understood after I explained the context. And yes, context is everything, but context isn’t always in the artist’s control, for better or worse.

The Banksy display is cleverly titled Banksy Out of CONTEXT as a wink to Art Miami’s new sister fair and street art’s claim to authenticity, but I would argue that in this situation, the works really are no longer street art. They’re more akin to relics of the Berlin Wall that were salvaged for display around the world.

Banksy, “Out of Bed Rat” (2006), from Los Angeles

As someone who appreciates street art, I was interested in the original Banksy works, and in the case of “Stop and Search” (2007), which is from the artist’s important West Bank series, I was intrigued by the back of the mural, which was exposed and made you realize that there was a room, perhaps a store room or bathroom, on the other side of the wall. This type of display, while unfortunate, also gave the work an archival and historic feel. The display reminded me of many walls torn from archeological sites around the world. We often justify those thefts because they preserve the objects and save them from vandals, profiteers, pollution, or iconoclasts. Others have preserved Banksy’s work in other ways, like an owner of a wall Banksy “blessed” in Toronto, who chose to protect it from vandals using tightly sealed Plexiglas. In what can only be described as perfectly “Banksy,” the vandal is now being protected from other vandals, though that term “vandal” is often avoided in street art and graffiti circles since it implies criminality.

I have no problem with the word “vandal,” and not because I believe that street artists or graffiti writers should be prosecuted as harshly as they are today, but because it accurately describes this particular type of art making. “Vandal” has two meanings: first, the Vandals were a Germanic tribe that sacked Rome in 455 ACE, and, second, it describes an individual who, according to Websters dictionary “willfully or ignorantly destroys, damages, or defaces property belonging to another or to the public.” Those two meanings suit the world of street art well. Street art is willfully done on the property of others, but that is part of its power. “Property is theft,” goes an old anarchist phrase, and what are graffiti and street artists if not champions of anarchist ideals, even if they rarely live up to them in practice? The tribe of the Vandals is also fitting for this group of artist upstarts. Coming from the margins of the art world, street art is only seen as a blip on the landscape by the most conservative art lovers. But street art is undoubtedly part of the spectrum of contemporary art and will be for years, if not decades, to come.

Banksy, “Kissing Coppers” (2005), from Brighton, UK

It encouraged me that one blogger at Arrested Motion recognized that there is value in this strange exhibit, even as he wrote that the show was sure to “rile up true street art fans everywhere.” He continues, “but one can’t help feeling disgusted by the audacity of it all, saddened by the whole situation, yet mesmerized by seeing these iconic images on cinderblocks in front of you.” That sounds like an honest response, because these works do have an impact on the viewer. The biggest peculiarity about them at Art Miami was the velvet ropes that often separated the viewer from the works, but that’s not odd in a setting like this. One arts administrator once told me that they had to rope off one of their multi-million dollar sculptures because visitors to their world-renowned theater often hung their coats on the work. Yes, even “well-heeled” visitors who should know better need visual cues.

I was happy to see this show regardless of the monetary motivations of the works’ owner. Banksy’s Pest Control, a controversial committee that determines the authenticity of Banksy works on the market and refuses to authenticate any pieces not originally intended for resale, will certainly not give these their stamp of approval, but that’s alright. It’s about the art, not the auction value. I’m glad Banksy has established Pest Control to fend off profiteers, but I’m also glad I saw this small show strewn across the floor plan of two sister art fairs. Walking around to see them all felt a little like doing the stations of the cross, visiting one famous work after another, remembering the initial impact they had in their times and places. In the noise of the art fair, it was a welcome diversion, and even if the juxtapositions were often absurd, like the kissing cops near the entrance to the VIP tables and real estate agents, they reminded me how Banksy is just like any of the other artists that make up an important part of the cacophony of voices that are the contemporary art scene.

I’m glad these works have been preserved, but I also hope they eventually end up in a museum where people will be able to enjoy them “outside” the art market, if that’s even possible anymore.

Banksy, “Wet Dog” (2007) from Bethlehem, West Bank.

Banksy Out of CONTEXT took place December 4–9 at the Art Miami and CONTEXT art fairs (the Art Miami Pavilion, Wynwood Arts District, Miami).

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