Since the 1990s, he and a few others have held such sway over the creative universe that when the economy collapsed in 2008, his art was making more money than the banks.
As we sat down, he removed a piece of gum from his mouth and wrapped it carefully in a paper napkin. He did not sign the paper, which was thus rendered a piece of litter. Had he added his name, it would have been art and doubtless found its way into someone’s collection by now.
Hirst was more charming than I imagine I would be if I had his money, so it would have been disingenuous to ask where litter ended and art began. But this week it has been harder to avoid the question.
It is the paint-and-run graffiti artist known as Banksy who has blurred the boundary this time. Last weekend, he revealed that he was responsible for spraying “go big or go home” in large red letters on a stable at a miniature village in Great Yarmouth. Alongside he had stencilled a drawing of a rat and added his name.
That stable was previously worth about as much as a stick of gum. It is now said to be a saleable asset priced at several hundred thousand pounds.
Yet it’s a piece of graffiti, no better and no worse than that on the railway bridge over Kirkstall Road in Leeds. Why is one art and the other not?
There is another model village in Bridlington, not far from where I plan to be living soon. If I were to pitch up there one weekend with a can of Humbrol and spray “Dave was here” on one of the exhibits, the owner would quite rightly call the police. I doubt very much if a defence of “this is art and if you can’t see it you’re a Philistine” would hold up in court.
So how does Banksy get away with it? His modus operandi is no different to that of any other hoodie with a spray can; he turns up in broad daylight, creates a diversion and lets loose with the paint while everyone is looking the other way. Then he disappears into the crowd like Jeremy Beadle.
The only distinguishing factor between his graffiti and mine is that he proclaims his to be art and everyone believes him.
Perhaps it’s not a new phenomenon. Andy Warhol defied the art establishment in the 1960s, but at least he put several days’ effort into each of his Campbell’s soup cans. And who knows: maybe Salvador Dali painted his first wobbly clock by mistake and then palmed it off onto a gullible collector.
But in knocking off instant doodles that are worth more than the price of the average house, Banksy has literally given himself a licence to print money.
In fairness, it’s not his money. The proprietor of the model stable is now also the owner of a valuable artwork and can do with it what he pleases. For the moment he has honoured the artist’s request to keep it on display, with a Perspex cover to protect it from other hoodies with spray cans.
But the stunt serves mostly to add value to the Banksy brand. He was supposedly worth nearly £40m at the last count, and while that may be pocket money to Damien Hirst, it’s a lot more than the artist currently being pursued by police on Kirkstall Road can ever hope to earn.
No-one even knows Banksy’s real name, though some say he is Robin Gunningham from Bristol. Those who admire him applaud his handling of sensitive social issues and his strong political statements – of which “go big or go home” is apparently one. But it’s really just an off-the-peg piece of word spaghetti.
The slogan was among 10 artworks plastered at resorts along the east coast during his latest art attack, which he called his summer Spraycation. Some of the others include actual drawings and are quite pleasing to the eye, though no more so than, say, a Bandeira cartoon in this newspaper.
Yet the art world is facilitating academic discussions about his doodles, and several councils are spending public money on protecting them. They’re anxious not to be accused of Philistinism, but are they being credulous instead?
And in the final analysis, is it art or is it litter? Call me uncultured by all means, but I don’t buy the art argument. Not at these prices anyway.
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