The small Welsh town of Port Talbot has seen a steady flurry of visitors since a mural by Banksy appeared on the side of a garage there last week. The mural, painted around two perpendicular walls, depicts a child appearing to taste falling snow by sticking out their tongue. On the adjacent wall, however, the source of the ‘snow’ is revealed to be a rubbish bin on fire which is spewing out ash.
The artwork has attracted much attention. In order to protect the mural, plastic sheeting and a protective fence were put up around it. But just hours after these efforts were made, a man described as a ‘drunk halfwit’ attempted to pull the fencing down. No damage was done to the artwork, and the man who tried to remove the fencing ran away before he could be identified.
Gary Owen, the local who bestowed the ‘drunk halfwit’ epithet on the mysterious would-be vandal, is also the person who claims to have asked Banksy to paint the mural. His outrage is in many ways understandable - residents of this town would of course want to protect the mural from damage.
But there is another dimension to this. It is not so long since Bansky’s shredder stunt at Sotheby’s in October, where immediately after his famed Girl with Balloon painting was sold for an eye-watering £860,000, a shredder built into the bottom of the frame was activated, thus destroying the piece. Banksy posted an Instagram video claiming responsibility for the stunt, captioning it with Picasso’s words: ‘The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.’
Having claimed responsibility for the destruction of Girl with Balloon, Banksy’s piece has become a new work of art with a new name, Love is in the Bin. It is estimated to have doubled in value. Through Banksy taking ownership of the destruction enacted that day, a perhaps unsurprising thing has happened to the work of art. As the BBC’s Will Gompertz mused, ‘contemporary art is not valued for its inherent aesthetic qualities…For a lot of collectors art has become an asset class’.
So when Banksy is seen as the author of destruction, the destruction simply becomes an alteration or even enhancement of the work, because it is associated with Banksy’s brand. But the potentially destructive actions of a so-called ‘drunk halfwit’ are something the artwork must be protected from.
But what if, just if, the ‘drunk halfwit’ was Banksy himself? Of course, this is highly unlikely – a Banksy attempt at destruction might be a little more slick and coordinated. But whether this botched attempt to pull down some fencing is something Banksy the artist would do is irrelevant. The question is whether what has happened in Port Talbot would look different if Banksy himself were known to have attempted to alter his work. What the reaction to Port Talbot versus the reaction to the Sotheby’s shredder shows is that the art itself is very much secondary to the artist, even if that artist, like Banksy, takes pains to remain anonymous.
But Banksy is not really anonymous. The Banksy brand with which his paintings are associated is what gives them value. And the interest in art that appears mysteriously on walls leaps when it is authenticated as his. But this rising level of commercialisation is ironic for someone who is keen to subvert it at all costs. Which is why Banksy’s shredder stunt, as an act of artistic defiance – alongside the attempted removal of the Port Talbot fences – should prompt us to consider some important questions about street art in particular. This is the case regardless of whether what became of Girl with Balloon was Banksy’s reaction to an increasingly monetised art world or simply a master plan by a commercial genius.
Banksy takes advantage of open, available spaces to create his art. When those spaces are then fenced off and made inaccessible, his artwork stops being a leveller and instead becomes aloof and removed from its context. And while a plastic sheet may prevent a mural from damage, it does not prevent it from being sold or dismantled by bodies who carry greater authority. The protection afforded to the artwork is not the same as untouchability, and a power dynamic is created whereby the ordinary person cannot touch the work of art, whereas those with power and wealth can.
Regardless of his motive, the unknown ‘drunk halfwit’ has done something which, on further consideration, is perhaps not so half-witted after all. Because whoever Banksy is and whatever Banksy personally thinks, his artwork, initially the star of the UK’s streets, has become sucked into a world of commercialisation and private ownership. Whoever that man in Port Talbot is, he has highlighted that the graffiti artist absorbed into a world of art auctions has been (perhaps against his will) totally separated from the true graffiti artist. In that way, once again, we have all been totally Banksy-ed, but maybe not by Banksy himself.