I was on my way to school, carpooling with my friend Sheridan and her mom Sharon, who drove a green Ford minivan. We stopped at a light right next to a pole with one of Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” stickers plastered on it. I squinted to get a closer look at André the Giant’s face, and asked Sheridan’s mom what it was I was looking at. She glanced over and told me that I was looking straight into the face of the devil. André the Giant’s face haunted me for weeks.
Fast forward a few years down the line, and that same face would re-emerge on the sweatshirts and beanies of prepubescent boys who liked to skateboard and listen to My Chemical Romance. An image I had once mistaken for a symbol of Satan was now considered cool precisely because suburban moms like Sharon always misunderstood it.
But what happens when people like Sharon start to recognize street art? And what happens when Sotheby’s starts auctioning off street artist Banksy’s prints for 50,000 euros? Street art is undoubtedly starting to bleed into the once-exclusive and elite art world, which calls for artists like Banksy to act in self-reflexive ways.
Banksy’s recent arrival in New York City has spun New Yorkers into a frenzied scavenger hunt, looking for his pieces in alleyways and other nooks and crannies around the city.
Thus far, the stunt that’s ignited the most discourse is Banksy’s sale of stencils and prints through an art stand in Central Park for a mere $60 a pop. Only a handful of prints were sold, which inevitably raises the question of why there is such hype around Banksy’s artwork in the first place, and more importantly, whether the hype surrounds the art itself, or the space that it occupies.
Straddling the line between street art and “high” art, Banksy was the first street artist to infiltrate the white walls of galleries and museums. In 2005, Banksy added one of his pieces to the British Museum’s collection of antiquities: a fake rock, onto which he sketched caveman-like drawings of a man pushing a grocery cart. That same year, Banksy snuck into four New York museums and added his own work to pre-existing collections.
What’s interesting about these stunts is that Banksy’s infiltration didn’t mean that he defaced the walls of museums with graffiti. He had a clear understanding of what fits in with high art, and how to replicate it. There is deliberate thought and intention behind his work, and a new sincerity that transcends the typical “fuck the system” mentality that a lot of other street artists embody. A majority of his pieces are politically charged, anti-capitalistic, and at the same time humorous. He’s not ironic, but satirical. His pointed criticism calls for thought, and reflects the current issues and mentalities that occupy our society and culture.
The fact that Banksy only sold a handful of pieces through the art stand is perhaps a reflection of the fact that his work is meant for the streets. His manipulation of space and environment is what makes his street art so unique. The reaction he gets from renowned art dealers like Sotheby’s only reaffirms the fact that his art can exist as high art, but can only do so if it remains outside the galleries, and on the walls of buildings.