Banksy Street Art: When Street Art Is in a Museum, What's the Point?

“Graffiti’s always been a temporary art form. You make your mark and then they scrub it off. I mean, most of it is just designed to look good from a moving vehicle. Not necessarily in the history books. But maybe all art is about just trying to live on for a bit. I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” — Banksy

Street art is something that is transient. 

By nature, it is meant to preserve, but at the same time, it is only meant to remain as long as the natural forces of our Earth allow it to be here. It is subject to be painted over, destroyed, or eroded by elements. It is, at its core, a call-out to a world that is constantly shouting back. Street art is more than just a statement — it is a primitive response to what it is like to live on Earth.

Enter Banksy.

This week, it was announced that the Sincura Group would be bringing a Banksy stencil back to America as a centerpiece to an exhibition that will be part of an important “private collection.” The stencil of a young child in a sweat-shop sewing a Union Jack flag was originally painted in the London borough of Haringey. However, the controversy began when the mural was taken from the wall it was painted on. 

According to a report from NPR, the stencil later resurfaced in Miami as part of an auction. The stencil in question, along with a number of other works by Banksy, was featured in an art show in Miami in 2012 that was condemned by many as it was put on with no collaboration with the artist himself.

Due to outrage from the people of Haringey and the questionable circumstances under which the painting was taken, it was removed from auction. But now it’s back and expected to make a great deal of money.

This is not what street art is meant to be.

Banksy, as far as a street artist goes, has stayed on the high ground. He remains an elusive figure serving more as a voice of the marginalized than an artist who could be selling his work for six-figure amounts. That is not to say that he does not sell his work from time to time, but his public displays are always meant to be free and public and for the most part, he sticks to his guerrilla art style: make it, show it, make no money, and move on.

This is what his art is all about, and this is what all art in the digital age should be about. Everyone can be an artist of any medium, everyone has a palette, and everyone can have a gallery. To be an artist in the 21st century is less about big breaks and more about ceaselessly creating, no matter where you are. 

While Banksy could have sold out a long time ago, he continues to create work unannounced and off (and sometimes on) the radar. It is specific to a time and a place and it is not meant to be collected or sold. Art made for the purpose of a gallery show is one thing, but art displayed on the street is something quite different. It is free of ownership and able to be found and taken in by anyone as long as it is in existence.

It is not curated and it is not preserved. It is a voice of time and place and nothing more. To collect it completely removes the meaning from the work.

Some artists choose to develop their brand and market it in a predictable way that people come to expect, as is the case with Shepard Fairey and his “Obey” empire. Take note, I find nothing wrong with this and I fully support any artist who has done something long enough to make money for their art. I think artists should be supported.

But it is refreshing to see artists who allow their work to be taken in by the public and largely wash their hands of it. In 2009, an unauthorized display of Banksy’s reclaimed street art called "Please Love Me" took what once belonged to the world and placed it together, removed and sterile, in a gallery.

No longer was it something directly responding to the environment in which it was imagined, but rather it was taken out of context and turned into a brand.

People going to the gallery were going to see a Banksy. They were not walking through the streets when they happened to stumble upon one. This is part of where the wonder of street art lies. It is equal parts creation to be seen, and genuine discovery on the part of the observer. It can be obvious and out in the open or tucked away in forgotten places waiting to be found. It is a statement that “a human was here,” and that is not something that can be collected, packaged and sold.

Listening to the few things Banksy says publicly reveals a man deeply passionate about the nature of art — his art and whom he makes it for. He has an artistic persona that cannot be separated from where his installations are. They speak directly to the people in a way that doesn’t require interpretation. 

In context, they are a level plane on which everyone can see them, understand, think, react, enjoy, or hate. Out of context, they are sitting in storage waiting until the time is right to make someone money.

Art is meant to be seen, not collected.