Banksy's SF art exhibit is selling out because he is a sellout

SFGATE reporter Michelle Robertson on Banksy's critique of an art world he actively participates in

Starting at $40 a ticket and reaching $70 on weekends, the new — unauthorized — “Art of Banksy” touring exhibit has landed at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, and tickets are already selling out quickly. 

Brought to the city by Starvox Exhibits, the same group responsible for the “Immersive Van Gogh” show that came to San Francisco in 2021, “The Art of Banksy” brings together more than 100 artworks by the secretive, anonymous artist, with the value of the pieces totaling more than $35 million, the website for the exhibit proudly exclaims. 

The exhibit features works, contributed from private collections, created largely between 1997 and 2008, when Banksy was at his peak of proliferation. It’s well-curated and thoughtfully displayed, beginning chronologically and highlighting many of Banksy’s career highs, including “Flower Thrower” and “Girl and Balloon.” But it falters within a clearly capitalist apparatus that stands in direct contradiction to what Banksy claims to revile, and unsurprisingly ends in a large gift shop, selling Banksy T-shirts, prints and other paraphernalia. 

“Banksy, whose identity is the art world’s biggest secret, is an enigmatic artist and world-recognized activist,” the press release for the exhibition reads. “His graffiti-influenced stencil technique, often combined with anti-establishment slogans, is immediately recognizable and never fails to generate immediate attention.”

The key word here is “attention.” Do I think Banksy deserves the constant media kerfuffle? No, not really. Buoyed by the secrecy of his identity, the insanely high prices his pieces sell for and a series of “thought-provoking” art stunts, Banksy’s messaging is convoluted and contradictory. It participates in the world it critiques in painfully obvious ways. 

It seems to me that Banksy’s art directly reflects what late theorist Mark Fisher defined as “capitalist realism,” a system in which capitalism is so pervasive, it consumes everything in its path, including critiques of it. Or, in Fisher’s words, it acts “as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.” 

Banksy, whose work attempts to criticize capitalism and the power structures it perpetuates, seems not to be an anti-capitalist at all, judging by the exhibit and its obsession with the commercial market surrounding the artist. Banksy, it should be noted, has no role in the exhibition and has not commented on it. 

The exhibition open-handedly conveys its own obsession with money. One description of a piece of art on the wall reads: “Banksy played what could be one of the most audacious stunts in art history, by arranging for one of his best-known works, a framed version of ‘Girl with the Balloon,’ to self-destruct after being sold at auction for just over €1m. When in October 2021 the shredded artwork itself then re-appeared in an auction at Sotheby’s, it was sold for €18.6m.” You get the picture. 

When it comes to his artistic technique itself, Banksy's simplistic, stenciled art works are too self-evident. There’s Winston Churchill in a mohawk, people waiting in line to buy shirts that read “Destroy Capitalism” and even an offensive image of Vietnam’s “Napalm Girl,” Phan Thi Kim Phuc, holding hands with Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald. These are the kind of artworks that don’t leave anything with you after viewing but a bad taste in your mouth. And removed from their rightful context — the street — the entire experience feels like one big charade. 

Am I excited to see an art exhibition sell out in its first week of opening? Most certainly. But do I think people paying upwards of $40 for a ticket deserve something more substantial — a meal rather than a sugary snack (see: the Judy Chicago retrospective at the de Young or the Nam June Paik show at SFMOMA)? Most certainly. 


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November 24, 2021