On October 13 in New York’s Central Park, an inconspicuous gentleman set up a small street stall. The man was selling alternative, black and white art pieces for $60 a pop. For most of the day, he sat around as busy New Yorkers rushed past without noticing him or what he had on offer. By the time he went home, he had sold eight paintings and made a grand total of $420.
Despite his meagre takings, the man had actually parted with eight extremely valuable works of art that day. Under the facade of the low price tag, the real value of the paintings was cleverly concealed. You see, these were Banksy paintings – original Banksy paintings – each with an estimated value of more than US$40, 000.
Banksy is a revered and lucrative artist; no one really knows his true identity. He’s believed to have been born in England in the 1970’s and he was made famous in the late 1990’s as his signature freehand graffiti work continued to pop up along the streets of Bristol and London.
Banksy spent all of October taking up ‘‘residency’’ in New York while compiling his month-long series: ‘‘Better Out Than In’’. Each day of last month, he added new pop-up art piece across the city. His work appeared on buildings, sidewalks, in thrift stores, abandoned car parks, on the back of a truck and in the form of a Ronald McDonald statue.
With such a high price tag on Banksy pieces, vandals worldwide are going to extremes to steal his street art by removing walls and dismantling cars and buildings.
The bargain street stall on October 13 was part of the artist’s month-long shenanigans. Just one day after the stall appeared, Banksy announced the ruse on his webpage, making special mention that it was just a once-off event.
While you can’t help but feel a bit chuffed for those few who were fortunate enough to make a very wise $60 investment that day, the whole scenario does bring us to some age-old questions: What is art? What isn’t art? Is art a guy with some spray paint? And perhaps most importantly, what is art really worth? And why do we pay so much for art if we don’t ourselves like it?
To put things into perspective, it should be pointed out that in the art world, Banksy work is not necessarily considered high-end. The most expensive painting in the world – No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock – is worth a ludicrous US$140 million.
For those of you having trouble imaging the worth of US$140 million, that money could buy you; 300 suburban homes, 1500 luxurious yachts or 5000 brand spankin’ new Mini Coopers. Alternatively, US$140 million could probably feed a small African nation for a year. With this is mind, we must ask: how can the value of one item – albeit however artistically impressive – be so out of touch with common sense?
Perhaps, in the end, it is really the exclusivity of it all that really defines ‘‘art’’. If everyone could afford a US$140 million Pollock painting, then probably no one would want it. I wonder what Banksy’s take would be?