The first time I saw a real-life Banksy, I was studying abroad in London in the summer of 2017. I had searched out his nearly-life-size depiction of a painter — with a dead phone battery, walking along the streets of the notoriously gentrified neighborhood of Notting Hill for hours before reaching my destination. The second time I saw a Banksy, it was his famed mural of a dove in crosshairs, near one of the entrances to Bethlehem in the Palestinian West Bank. I was looking out the window of a moving bus, trying to avoid eye contact with gun-strapped Israeli soldiers, snapping a quick photo on my iPhone.
I, like many Americans in their early mid-20s, grew up on Banksy. I spent my high school years ogling the Banksy art books on display at Urban Outfitters. I decorated my freshman dorm room with a stretched canvas print of a Banksy with a rat and the words “Where’s Hollywood?” so I wouldn’t forget the city I grew up in. I bought my friend a kitschy keychain of the girl with the red balloon from a local flea market for a quirky 20th-birthday gift because red was her favorite color.
The anonymous street artist Banksy has become so well-known they’ve become a pop-culture icon, their artwork monetized by other people for clothing, prints, re-creations, and other types of merchandise. Admittedly heavy-handed, the artist’s most famous murals include portrayals of the characters of “Pulp Fiction” aiming bananas instead of guns, a woman gleefully hugging a bomb, or humanoid rats painting their own graffiti. But it wasn’t until I saw a Banksy mural in real life that I understood the art is not only contrarian and angsty, but political: always deliberately pro-working class, anti-war, and anti-capitalist.
You wouldn’t know any of that, however, gazing at the advertisements for the unauthorized “Art of Banksy” exhibition arriving in San Francisco this November. The showcase includes $35 million-worth of privately held Banksy art, including many less-well known works on canvas, wood, and paper. The majority of the works were produced between 1997 and 2008, a period widely considered to be Banksy’s prime. Though the event will be held at a “secret location,” according to the exhibit’s website, attendees already can buy tickets priced between $55 and $100 a pop — certainly a hefty price for artwork designed to be publicly accessible and free.
However, the exhibit is more than tone-deaf. It’s practically satire, so far removed from the meaning of Bansky’s work that one has to wonder if it’s designed to anger the graffiti artist. The man who initially conceived of the exhibit is Steve Lazarides, Banksy’s former agent before the artist cut him off entirely in 2008. There’s a record of antipathy between the two, and Lazarides has told reporters in the past that Banksy is a “control freak” who he hasn’t spoken to in “a decade.” One can only wonder if the division is related to how Lazarides has monetized Banksy’s work — while the artist has maintained a low profile, Lazarides has made millions showcasing and selling Banksy’s art while also consulting with other collectors about it.
Moreover, the exhibition is produced by Starvox Entertainment, which specializes in hosting events with a broad appeal and high profit margins. In fact, the company’s “About” page starts with a description of how financially profitable the group is and its ranking on Profit Magazine’s “fastest-growing companies” list before it even touches on the entertainment events they are in the business of providing.
Starvox is also behind the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit at SVN West. That showing has admittedly impressed casual attendees and art aficionados alike — after all, it was just extended through September. However, the Immersive Van Gogh presentation was crafted with significantly more respect for the art, enlisting award-winning multimedia artist Massimiliano Siccardi and the hypnotic sounds of electronic music composer Luca Longobardi to reimagine works like “Starry Night” and “Sunflowers.” None of that artistic input was recruited for the purely profit-driven Banksy exhibit, which lists Starvox Entertainment as the sole player on their “creative team” online. Instead, Starvox has issued cringeworthy pleas for “influencers,” which they quantify as individuals with 2,000 followers or more, to post about the exhibit online in return for “fantastic freebies.”
Of course, Van Gogh died over 130 years ago, giving the presenters an amount of temporal distance that allows for reinvention without offending the artist’s sensibilities. Banksy is still alive and proudly proclaiming their politics, funding and painting a refugee rescue boat in the Mediterranean just last year, for example. Though the artist hasn’t commented on the “Art of Banksy” exhibit, he or she has posted conversations to Instagram saying the artist “doesn’t charge people to see art unless there’s a fairground wheel.”
Does that mean the exhibit’s a total waste of time? Not exactly. The real problem is that, though most of this art was intended for public consumption, the selected pieces are all privately owned. To even be part of this exhibit, the artworks themselves were exploited; transformed into exactly the capitalist product the artwork protests.
Viewing these works, even through the lenses of skepticism and disappointment, is still worth the while. Just know that the more money you pay to get close to a Banksy, the further you get from the intention of the artist themselves.