The day Banksy became a real artist

Urban Animal

A goal of, the official website for world-famous British graffiti artist Banksy’s one-month residency in New York, may be to get the public to realize that a city itself is a beautiful place of expression. Like cities, however, many works of art are brutally zoned and regulated — and indicative of deeper societal problems.

A week ago on a sidewalk in Central Park, Banksy was selling original works of art from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Although critics appraised each canvas at $10,000, Banksy sold each one for the going market rate in the park — $60. Technically, if Banksy didn’t acquire a permit to be a street vendor, the works he sold should be confiscated. At the very least, they should not be authenticated, because they were not registered with any national fine arts association.

I consulted my friend, a student at the world-renowned Rhode Island School of Design, about these violations. I asked him what the name of the leading American fine arts association is.

“Money,” he responded.

Today, art isn’t primarily about values or feelings. Art is about artists making money. Banksy famously rejects this appropriation.

His work is amazing, in part because it is showcased in the streets, not museums. Banksy’s graffiti, however, doesn’t just illuminate problems with museums. Banksy’s art, such as the day he sold out in Central Park, also shows the problems with urbanized societies.

Although the streets are romantic places for artists such as Banksy to explore, in reality, streets are hostile to everything that isn’t a car. Take Oxford and Addison, for instance. I almost get hit every time I use the freaking crosswalk. Down on San Pablo, I saw a woman smoking outside a building with a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor beside her leg. I noticed her only because she was coughing until she threw up. Sidewalks like this are where artists try to make a living. While for pedestrians it’s nice seeing artists selling their work outside, for artists there’s nothing romantic about selling artwork on the sidewalk.

Selling your work here means you’re competing with everything for attention: taxis, the noise of the subway, pedestrians, pollution. Artists dealing on the sidewalks in Central Park or Brooklyn probably don’t live anywhere near Central Park or Brooklyn. Instead, they have to commute by subway, which takes two hours and costs $6 round trip. For the whole commute, they lug their canvases and lunch. Once artists set up shop, they can’t leave unless a friend watches their stuff, or else someone will steal it. They also have to eat accordingly: Otherwise, they will need to poop, leaving their canvases for someone to steal. They do this for five or six hours. Maybe they sell their work. Maybe they don’t. For an artist, every minute that passes on the sidewalk is time taken away from making art. But it’s not like there’s a choice. It’s like the artist is at the mercy of whoever is walking by. Even though this is unpleasant for artists, there are more tragic ways of trying to make a living.

Street vendors selling luxury goods in American cities are a sign of the sorry state of our public values. Artists selling their work on the sidewalk tend to pop up in gentrified areas, as do farmers markets. Like street art vendors, farmers “barter” their harvests at market rate. Both are at the mercy of the appetites of shoppers. Both offer idealized shopping experiences for consumers.

We city-dwellers say we value goods such as art and organic produce. And as a seasoned food writer and an attendee of Oakland’s Art Murmur, I know people in Berkeley and Oakland actually care about these things. But when it comes to paying for these goods, we just want the best deal.

If we were really committed to organic food, then we would subsidize local produce such that baby carrots would be cheaper than chips and just as available (when in season). If we were really committed to the arts, we would fund public education and tell students to follow their artistic passions. Instead, we tell them to work off their debt. From the look of things, it seems like we are exploiting artists, farmers and students. How many college educations, apples or paintings will people need to purchase in order to change that?

And for the record, I don’t actually think Banksy’s works should be confiscated. What I find problematic is that private ownership of his work goes against the purpose of his global public art project.

For a day in Central Park, Banksy wasn’t the infamous, trespassing graffiti artist whose work is easily recognized. He was an artist just trying to make a living. By dealing in Central Park, Banksy was selling his own work on the black market. As in Banksy’s other work, he was shedding light on exploitation — but this time, it was of street artists.

The ones we see every day.

Josh Escobar writes the Monday column on the intersection of student and urban life. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @urbananimale.