General Artillusions

Under PlexiGlass: Banksy and the Assumptions of Value

I was driving down Hollywood Blvd when I saw a piece of life size graffiti art depicting a young boy standing on crates with a camera that was covered in plexiglass.

Since I live in a big city I see my fair share of street art and while I often see things that I admire I don’t often bother to stop the car, get out and take a photograph. It wasn’t that it was a jaw dropping piece of work that stopped me. It was the fact that the art was under plexiglass.

I had heard recently, that the world famous/notorious/anonymous street artist, Banksy was in town. I had also heard that he had traveled on to Las Vegas in recent days but that someone was following around after him to cover the works he had created in yep, you guessed it: Plexiglass.

You see, Banksy’s art is so valuable that people are stealing it right off the wall. It often times doesn’t make it to see the light of day and the latest attempts to protect it are to cover the works. That way, it is safe from other vandalism and it might not get cut out of the wall and stolen right away. So I saw plexiglass and my brain made an immediate assumption that because it was covered this must be a Bansky and therefor it is important. SO stop the fuckin’ car!

When I walked over I also saw this other plexi-covered Oscar piece in the image to the right.  It was and is (if it’s still there) an interesting visual commentary on the Oscars or perhaps about placing value on celebrity. Or a comment on the rich and famous, or maybe it was a reference to the actual artist as a trophy. If indeed this was Banksy, his identity alone is valued at around a million dollars. I will let you mull over your own interpretation of the art itself. Is the work as interesting or less if created by an unknown artist? Please do feel free to leave your thought and interpretations of the work in the comments.

I have no idea at first glance if this is or is not an authentic Banksy. I only know that someone has decided it is worth protecting.

Any artist who wanted to imply that his street artwork is valuable, would simply need to cover it in plexiglass. Assumptions will be made. I immediately assumed the art was valuable because it was protected.

Dada artists of days gone by such as, Marcel Duchamp who first placed a toilet seat in a museum and called it a fountain knew, and just like advertisers and many designers know today, context is everything. If you call it art and place it a position of prominence, it becomes art. If you place an object on a pedestal, or put an authentic designer logo on a factory bag or if you put plexiglass over a piece of street art, it causes us to assume its value. It is the fallacious argument from authority for the visual world.

The moral of the story is, that it doesn’t really matter if it is a Banksy at all. Regardless of its origin or authenticity, the work was successful in manipulating our attention. This is also a lesson in how we should be very skeptical of what art, commercialism, advertising and industry try to trick us into thinking has value.

It’s so very easy to believe what is merely implied.

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Amy Roth

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab and cohost of Makers' Hustle Podcast Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+.

16 Comments

  1. March 7, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Oh my. This is an endless conversation. How dependent on its context is art? It kinda sorta ties in with the question of why can’t I enjoy Jim Carrey’s performances now that I know him to be an anti-vax loon or why can’t I enjoy the works of Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise or John Travolta anymore?

    What if I said that as long as the purpose of art is to evoke feelings, if knowing who the artist is does just that, it needs to be considered to be part of the whole work? If a work of art I now consider awful was created by a person I respect, would I like it instead? If so, am I now a hypocrite for saying the work is awful?

    So if the artist makes his work seem valuable by covering it with plexiglass, why shouldn’t it be viewed as a legitimate artistic strategy to create valued art?

    But if the plexiglass is installed by some another, unrelated person, does that make that person an artist too? =)

  2. March 7, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    I have the same conversation at my house. I just can’t seem to enjoy the actors you mentioned anymore either. I just can’t bring myself to support their fame.

    But oh how I LOVE the idea of someone covering artwork in plexiglass not because a famous artist painted it but simply because they wanted to, as their own project.

  3. March 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    “But if the plexiglass is installed by some another, unrelated person, does that make that person an artist too? =)”

    It depends on the intent. If the plexiglasser is considering the graphiti to be a found object that they are improving, then they are an artist… just not a very good one.

    If they are covering the art to protect it from the elements and share it with the masses then they are a conservator… albeit an uncharictaristically outdoorsy one.

    If they are plexiglassing it call attention to it and artificially increase its value then they are an art dealer… a rather clever and unscrupulous one.

  4. March 7, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    I think that with the current assumptions being made about street art that if someone went around covering pieces for whatever reason they deemed appropriate, perhaps their own personal aesthetic sensibilities than they would indeed be a respect-worthy conceptual artist and a street artist at the same time.

  5. March 7, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    A good friend of mine did something similar as a project.
    The exterior of the building ABC No Rio had a great wheat paste mural on the lower half of the building. For the bi-annual, building wide exhibition, all surfaces of the building are game for art-ing. My friend covered the mural with Plexiglas that he had done some artwork on. The idea was to see what else got added to it. (mostly stickers it turns out).
    As for the ‘Banksy’ artwork, my guess is conservation. Or maybe that’s just my hope 🙂

  6. March 7, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    I like this post. I like it very much. I think this is a conversation well worth having. I used to work in a museum that focused heavily on conceptual art and pop art, neither of which are really my scene, but really do raise a lot of really interesting philosophical questions about what makes something art. Look at the work of modern artists like Conrad Bakker or Jeff Koons and you will see that the spirit of Duchamps is alive and well, and still challenging people’s boundries. Now, I am not saying that I am all on board the conceptual art train. I mostly think these guys are douchebags skating through the art world on the strength of their personalities alone, but I think the boundries ought to be pushed, and we should think about what art means and how we engage with it.

    Banksy is an interesting case. I genuinely like Banksy and appreciate his perspective. He calls attention to important issues of race and class in a way that is poignant and humorous at the same time, and he respeccts no masters. I think the quandries you point out in this post kinda reflect Banksy’s relationship with his own status as an artist. If you look through he “inside” (http://www.banksy.co.uk/indoors/kiddingme.html) section of his website, you can find a number of baffled and self-deprecating references to his own status as “artist” and his bizarre transition from criminal defacer of property to the-guy-getting-his-graffiti-plexiglassed. I think in some ways Banksy may end up being one of the most important artists of our generation, if only because of the way in which he rose to prominence and how meta the whole thing is.

    Kudos, Banksy. And whether or not these are “real” Banksys (is that the plural of Banksy? Discuss.), I like them.

  7. March 7, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    I’ll be contrarian. 🙂

    In my suburb, the only street art I generally see are fairly simple initial tags – nothing spectacular. A few years ago, though, I found a three-eyed & three-eared mutant bunny painted on an electrical box near me. I loved that thing, and snapped some pictures of it, which I am glad of, because it eventually got covered over to hide, and then the lamer initial taggers painted over that.

    Maybe the fact that it’s not permanent art makes the fact that I got to see it made it more valuable for me. It was exposed to the weather and in constant danger of damage and removal.
    Covering and trying to protect something like that seems like it takes away from it – it is ephemeral and that’s part of its nature and its meaning and its value.

  8. March 8, 2011 at 12:11 am

    It makes me want to install plexiglass on random empty walls, just to make people look really hard at it.

  9. March 8, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Just saw this, thought immediately of Amy: http://www.neatorama.com/2011/03/07/angry-birdsky/

  10. March 8, 2011 at 11:43 am

    If you call it art and place it a position of prominence, it becomes art.

    I’ve become sort of obsessed with this idea lately. Is art really just pointing at something and calling it “art”? If it is, is that necessarily a bad thing? What does that tell us about us as humans? Perhaps merely that we’re obsessed with labels and categorizing things.

    What could I, with no significant non-musical artistic skill to speak of, get away with? What if I just grabbed a TV remote and titled it “Master” – could I get it shown in a gallery? Would I need some sort of clout first? Would it be more readily accepted by viewers if I was, I don’t know, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, or a Manhattan socialite, or a female bisexual Canadian hipster?

    tl;dr: hmmmmm….

  11. March 8, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Angry-Birdsky. I am in love.

  12. March 8, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    Also Maki: COTW! Are we doing that here?

  13. March 8, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    I’m not sure that is all that contrarian. I’d certainly agree, and I’d lay pretty strong odds on Banksy agreeing. He doesn’t do street art because he couldn’t make it in the gallery world. He does it because it has this endless, open set of viewers that aren’t confined to gallery punters, and I’m willing to bet he enjoys the fact that his work often ends up painted over, added to, altered. It was definitely a facepalm moment for me, seeing that plexiglass.

    Your comments about tagging are funny, because I feel pretty similarly about it. It always felt like dogs urinating on signposts to me. But I once attended a lecture by Barry McGee, another famous street artist, who went on at length about the art of tagging and how much superior it was to street art. He swayed me a little, but didn’t exactly convince me. I still think it’s just a big game. But he certainly took it seriously.

  14. March 8, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    There is a definite irony to this, and it’s very telling of the kind of cultural framework we’ve built around art. Contemporary artists, and to some extent curators, like to challenge the “white cube” mentality of the gallery. The pro-gallery modernist argument is that the gallery provides a neutral space in which to view the art without distractions. The opposite, more contemporary side says that the gallery is the context, and that it is anything but neutral. It places art in a “higher” social sphere and simply perpetuates the high/low class divide.

    This kind of out-of-the-box thinking started in the ’50s and ’60s, but as you can tell, the white cube is still very much with us. People like Banksy do all they can to push the envelope of art into a class-less public sphere, and then, hilariously, someone comes along and basically “frames” his work — singling it out and elevating it above all the other street art. It’s just a rehash of the same old tired modernism.

    And perhaps it is an attempt at conservation. But it seems misguided. Like conserving a Tibetan sand mandala. I would argue that any defacement is part of a real social dialogue with the work.

    I love the fact that his street work is essentially not for sale. Banksy could paint on your business wall, and it might be a boon for business or might not. But it’s not as though Anish Kapoor came along and dropped his latest sculpture at your door. You can’t really offer it up to a gallery, short of cutting a hole in the concrete. It’s one of the few examples of an artwork having an intrinsic worth, without any kind of monetary value.

    *ahem* okay. End rant.

  15. March 9, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    Haha! Is that a nomination? 🙂

    I was also thinking: If I came upon said empty plexiglass, I know I’d probably try desperately to slide a drawing or something under it.

  16. April 4, 2011 at 12:12 am

    If anyone is keeping track: Apparently the graffiti art is by none other than, Mr Brainwash. Hmmm. Figures!

    If you are not familiar with who that is, do check out the film, “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”

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