The anonymous artist fills a unique void in art history and in ourselves. His cynical but hopeful stance achieves what no other artist of our time does — all while mocking his audience.
Banksy, Girl with Balloon, 2006. Courtesy of Sotheby'sArt reflects the times, and in many ways, Banksy is the artist of our time. Full of contradictions, hated and beloved, anonymous, critical, hopeful, humorous — Banksy’s personality as well as his art represent an age of progress and regress and a generation that seemingly can’t find itself. And despite his blatant disregard for the traditional art market elite, he is wildly successful and paradoxically collected by said subjects of contempt, resulting in yet another milestone for the British artist last week. London-based Forum Auctions held a Banksy sale of prints on June 10, which in itself wasn’t particularly successful as it totaled $750,697, less than its low estimate. However, it meant that Banksy’s yearly total for the first time climbed above $100 million, continuing the exponential increase in the artist’s value that started in 2018.
Change in Total Sales, # of Lots Offered and Sold: Banksy2018 was the year of the infamous Balloon Girl shredding. The moment a canvas containing one of his most famous motifs sold at Sotheby’s for $1.37 million, one of his highest prices on the secondary market at the time, the frame sounded an alarm and a perplexed audience watched as the painting began descending through a shredder that had been built into the frame by the artist itself, supposedly years before. Global coverage ensued, the buyer couldn’t believe her luck as a painting she had just bought instantaneously became the subject of maybe the biggest stunt the art world had ever seen, thereby doubling its value at the least, and Banksy underscored his carefully established image as a moralistic and cynical bad boy who mercilessly mocks the industry that propelled him to stardom — and the more he trashes his audience, the more it loves him.
Banksy, Space Girl and Bird. Courtesy of BonhamsVery few individuals achieve this. Over ten years earlier, following his 2007 sale of Space Girl and Bird at Bonhams for a record $577,021, Banksy posted a new painting on his website, depicting an auction in mid-action, with collectors bidding for a frame that simply reads: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” It’s this audacity that forms the foundation on which the Briton operates, an anti-establishment sentiment that finds its roots in the street and graffiti art that defined Banksy in his formative years, and a characteristic he stayed true to despite the onset of his success and popularity.
Banksy, Devolved Parliament, 2009. Courtesy of Sotheby'sBuilding on top of this bedrock, Banksy combines creative skill with humor, a critical yet cheeky attitude towards the ethical issues occupying the world, and a keen long-term sense for relevance; plus, a priceless intuition of what moves the world. Balloon Girl had sold to the previous owner in 2006, meaning that if the shredder was indeed built in ahead of that first sale, the 2018 stunt was over 12 years in the making — a long time. But it can’t be put past this unique prankster, as his timeliness was proven beyond any doubt in 2019 again, when Devolved Parliament set a new record of $12.2 million for him. Painted in 2009, the work depicts the British lower house as being run by monkeys, one of his favorite motifs, and its appearance on the secondary market three months before Brexit talks came to a head proved brilliant. Back in 2005 he painted Show me the Monet, a work he was much criticized for, for the apparent disrespect of art history — in which he “vandalizes” Monet’s famous Japanese Footbridge with a traffic cone and a shopping cart — yet the painting came to auction in October 2020, more relevant than ever, and fetched $9.92 million, then his second highest price.
Banksy, Show me the Monet, 2005. Courtesy of Sotheby'sBanksys age well. They do so because the artist paints, stencils, sprays, builds whatever his heart desires with no regard for its profitability or its acceptance. He has his finger on the pulse of change and identifies the finer nuances behind the streams of developments, and time and again he is proven right. He doesn’t do so in an overly clever way either. His art is certainly no paragon of artistic sophistication, his humor can at times seem obvious, his motifs — despite small changes — remain repetitive, yet he is beloved even for that — because of that. In an age of pretend perfection, it is the anonymous individual that can afford to remain flawed. We all yearn for a little more anonymity, which we imagine would let us be more authentic, give us the courage to be more our unique selves. From that niche emerge Banksy’s more idealistic works. Motifs like Love is in the Air or Girl with Balloon or the reindeer he painted on a wall appearing to pull a homeless man sleeping on a bench in Birmingham ahead of Christmas 2019, are full of nostalgia and hope, complementing his cynicism and critical eye. In March of this year, he achieved yet another new record with Game Changer, the corona-inspired canvas that hails the superhero-like work of health staff during the global crisis. He first planted the painting on the walls of the University Hospital Southampton while the pandemic was in full swing, and the proceeds of the $23.1 million sale were donated to staff and patients of the hospital as well.
Banksy, Game Changer, 2020. Courtesy of Christie'sThere is no shortage of so-called moral voices in a time in which everyone can make themselves heard on social media. Yet the moralism more often than not drowns in self-righteousness and appears more a cry of attention than a genuine wish for a better world. Whether the man creating the above-mentioned art is different is impossible to know, but the persona of Banksy is. Because of his being detached from a real-life person, the personality cult surrounding him is limited to his art; because he is flawed — he has been met with much criticism, ranging from criticism of his art, to accusations of copying other artists, and trademark disputes in which he did not come out looking his best — he comes across as less pretentious; because he is anonymous, anyone can potentially relate to him — and because he doesn’t seem to care and is celebrated for it, because he is cynical yet hopeful, critical yet humorous, moralistic yet authentic, so many people do. We all want to be a bit more Banksy. Source