“The Banksy Effect” or, why I’m still pissed off at the Barnes Foundation

This is a genuine Banksy work from www.banksy.co.uk

This is a genuine Banksy work from http://www.banksy.co.uk

I seem to have a lot of competing emotions when I think about art. I guess that’s the whole point of great art – to make you feel the full range of human emotion as you gaze upon the sublime. Let me begin by saying that I’m just a regular person who happens to like art. I like reading about it, and looking at it; I try to go to interesting exhibitions and galleries when I can. I feel that great art performs an important public service – it shows us who we are. Therefore, I like to support local artists when I can. My Mom’s an artist, so I picture all artists out there as sort of being like my Mom. Just doing what they love, whether or not they get paid for it. I guess that’s the whole point of being a great artist – money almost seems anathema to the creation of art itself.

I’m going to tell you about a series of negative experiences I’ve had with art over the past few years that have influenced my thinking about it all. These thoughts and experiences finally crystallized in my mind when I began reading Will Ellsworth-Jones’ new book today, Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall (2012), an unauthorized but very readable history of the life and work of the graffiti artist known as Banksy. As an aside, I am a great admirer of Banksy and his work, but I will not get into how great he is and include lots of candid shots of what may (or may not) be his work. There’s plenty of that to be found elsewhere on the internet.

What I do want to tease out for readers is a brief discussion of The Banksy Effect, which is now a term used in the media to describe the ways in which Banksy’s fame has helped tap previously unknown markets of graffiti art buyers. Never mind that Banksy himself would probably cringe at the idea. Graffiti art buyers are art buyers nonetheless, and so he has inadvertently helped commodify and sell street art, outsider art, and urban art (more new terms!). I guess that’s how you know you’ve made it; when you have an art term, category, or movement (ie: “pre-Raphaelite”) named after you.

Of the negative experiences I’ve had with art over the years, one in particular still pisses me off almost a year later. They say sometimes you discover how you feel about something only after identifying what you hate about it. So here goes:

Your Décor Style is Abstract Expressionism

First, let me congratulate the guys at www.art.com on snagging the domain name. I first heard about Art.com from a gallery in Seattle. They were selling interesting photographic prints, but they were almost sold out. The helpful gallery representative told me that I needn’t worry, because all the prints were reproducible and could be purchased online any time, at my convenience. I wouldn’t even have to leave my house to purchase something nice enough to hang on my wall.

I was intrigued, but conflicted. Part of the fun of going to the gallery in the first place is being able to pick out “the one” – a unique, limited-edition, signed, whatever-you-want-to-call it to bring home and proudly display. To me, picking something out online is “browsing” or “shopping”. I do it while I’m drinking tea and in my sweats. That’s the allure of the gallery purchase – you feel special and elite. Even though I personally have never been able to purchase an expensive piece of art, I imagine there’s a definite buyer’s sensation that you are worthy of this expensive thing that not everyone can have (or afford). You gain access to a club or sorts. You are not just a collector (a kid with baseball cards is a collector), you are an art collector.

So I went to Art.com, and although I am sure the site offers many beautiful things for sale by very talented people, in a strange way, I cannot bear it:

Do you need some help with "inspiring your discovery"? Art.com has a visual search tool for that, to help you uncover more stuff you didn't know you wanted to buy.

Do you need some help with “inspiring your discovery”? Art.com has a visual search tool for that, to help you uncover more stuff you didn’t know you wanted to buy. Note the option in the bottom right to “Cancel” in case you change your mind. Cancel my inspiration, thank-you very much.

Now I know a lot of readers will disagree with me, citing issues of egalitarianism and access. They will say that:

1) The internet is now a legitimate way to reach people who may not come across art otherwise

2) Sites like Art.com expose people who may not live in a city with many galleries to artists from around the world

3) Many people (including me) cannot afford the high price of art, and Art.com puts affordable pieces into the hands of those who might not otherwise be able to own art (prints from Art.com go for as little as $6.99; Edward Hopper was on sale today, reduced in price by four dollars to the very agreeable price of $31.99).

I think my problem with the site is that it doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it completely commodifies art, and dare I say “dumbs-down” art, reducing it to the level of a wall hanging from Target. On their website, Art.com proclaims to be “the world’s largest online specialty retailer of high-quality wall art”, insisting that “when you find art you love, you’ll love your space more… and that’s what it’s all about”. (As a personal aside, I just want to say that I never want to see the words “décor style” and “art collection” in the same paragraph).

Note how a user can choose to sort their results:

I guess that's what happens when you sell art to the masses online and become the Walmart of the art world. You have to have sort menus by width and height. So you can be sure it will fit above your toilet.

I guess that’s what happens when you sell commodified art to the masses online. You have to implement sort menus that include width and height. So you can be sure your new purchase will fit above the toilet.

This really is shopping, in the most overtly commercialized, capitalized way. I have a suspicion that the target market for a site like this is the person who’s seen “Starry Nights” or Mark Rothko’s work, and they really like the simplicity of Georgia O’Keeffe’s vagina flowers. They want everyone else to know that they “know art” – art as social declaration of class. It’s the same person who buys classic novels and puts them on their bookshelf to appear well-read or intellectual. An art poseur, maybe.

Call me a snob or a romantic, but I would never prefer to discover new artists or look at art this way. I like art to discover me; to surprise me and be spontaneous, and to jump out at me when I first see it, and when I least expect it. I like to hear a story behind it – about the artist, or about how it came to be. And if there is no story to be heard, I can make one up and impose my own story onto the work. To me, that’s the joy of graffiti art, and of Banksy’s work. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it makes a statement, and is like no other type of artistic expression. It’s very setting (outside and on the sides of buildings, etc) makes it just as much a part of my experience in the world as architecture. I am walking into it, standing beside it, sometimes hardly noticing it if I’m not paying close attention. It’s always there, with or without me and my dollars. It belongs to me as much as anyone else, and I don’t even need to have the internet to see it. That’s true “access” in my book.

Here for you, reader, I have developed my very own definition of the Banksy Effect:

It was there on some wall for a little while before it got painted over, and I got to see it along with a lucky few. That in itself is its own reward, because for a brief moment while I passed by, I was thinking deliberately about what the artist was trying to say.

No Entry to the Barnes Foundation

Now I’m going to move away from the internet to the opposite end of the spectrum. I will tell you about my non-experience at the Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia last summer. I had read excitedly about its re-opening earlier in the year (it was closed due to a relocation), and reviews described it as a “don’t miss” opportunity if you’re ever in Philly. It’s an extraordinary collection of Impressionist and Modernist paintings; one of the best in the world in fact, here in America the backcountry. For a little background, the Barnes Foundation is exactly the type of museum that Banksy derides:

These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see. – Banksy

Albert C. Barnes, whose private collection makes up the Barnes Foundation, was in fact a millionaire who struck it rich by inventing an anti-gonorrheal drug named Argyrol, before the advent of antibiotics. Apparently, the drug that kills gonorrhea will buy you a shitload of Monets.

To be fair, Barnes meant for his art collection to be part of a broader educational and cultural resource for the citizens of Philadelphia. Owing to the influence of the philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey, Barnes constructed an arboretum to accompany his art collection in 1922. He envisioned the Barnes Foundation as a school of art and horticulture, rather than a museum. But any goodwill Barnes might have intended evaporates when considering the strict terms of operation he detailed in his will. This included limiting public admission to just two days of the week, and prohibiting any loan, reproduction, and touring of any of the works. Only in 1961 after legal challenges did the Barnes Foundation open up to two-and-a-half days of public admission, with the condition of needing to make reservations by telephone at least two weeks in advance, with a weekly cap of no more than five hundred visitors. Sheesh. Art for the masses this is not.

In Barnes’ mind, limiting access would preserve the collection for the enjoyment of his target audience, students of art. Students would have time to really study the works, in what would be a very tranquil setting without the crying babies and mothers with prams. No need for a gift shop here with an exit through it. But for me, Barnes’ whole philosophy of art and its purpose raises more questions than answers. Who exactly is a “student of art”? Someone enrolled in an art program? An artist who has never been to school? A regular person like me who enjoys art and wants to learn more about it?

Barnes is well-hung. Photo by R. Kennedy for GPTMC

Barnes is well-hung. Photo by R. Kennedy for GPTMC

Which brings me to my incredible disappointment, and why I am still resentful towards the Barnes Foundation almost a year later. I had come all the way from Seattle with my mother to visit relatives, and to see this collection. We braved a hot summer day to take two buses downtown to Center City (one of the big reasons for the collection’s relocation in recent years was to locate it more centrally with greater access to the rest of Philly – see, it’s still all about access). We made it all the way inside after taking pictures of the building’s exterior. My Mom was so excited to see Modigliani. And they wouldn’t let us in.

I was so pissed off. I still am. I later noticed on the Barnes Foundation website in scrolling, tiny print that “walk-up tickets are limited and subject to availability. Advance reservations are highly recommended”. I was out of luck that day, and I felt the true limit of access. Not in a don’t-have-an-internet-connection type of way, but in a physical, geographic way. Not even paying the admission fee and the airfare to fly out from the opposite coast would change things for me. I felt shut out when I didn’t expect to feel that way, and that’s what made the feeling stick. I felt Barnes’ philosophy of equality through exclusivity reaching down through all those decades, and I hated him for it.

Maybe I’m being a sore loser, and maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to visit Philly and make plans to visit again. But I keep returning to Barnes’ strange philosophy of art, which sounds so egalitarian in theory, but feels rather exclusive in practice. It’s like the grandmother who wants to show you her favorite crystal, but you’re never allowed to drink out of it. Art for decoration, not experience. My feeling is that if you want to have a private collection which you keep for your own enjoyment in your home, great. But you can’t sort-of make a collection public. Once you invite others in, once you decide to share, you must share with everyone, as much as you possibly can and especially after you’re dead.

I did not get to see this painting. "Still Life: Majolica with Wildflowers" by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888 oil on canvas.

I did not get to see this painting. “Still Life: Majolica with Wildflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888 oil on canvas.

“We Couldn’t Get the Rights from Anonymous

Finally, I am going to talk about something that really throws a spanner in the works: Google Art Project. Google (which I refer to sometimes as Big Brother) has endeavored to combine the ease of a website like Art.com with all of the world’s museums that you will probably never get to visit in real life, unless you’re really, really lucky. It is an off-shoot project of the highly ambitious Google Books project of recent years, where the mass digitization of literary works led to many lawsuits and accusations of copyright infringement. Google wants to be the one to truly bring art to the masses (snicker).

Okay, let’s try to be open-minded and cite some positives. The site is very attractive, uncluttered, and easy to navigate with high-resolution images, and it gets kudos for featuring many works from other countries, which you really probably won’t get to see in your lifetime. Google received buy-in from many of the greatest public art collections in the world, so it’s one-stop shopping for the art-enthused web user. In typical Google fashion, you can exhaust yourself with embedded linked information to other artists, works, time periods, and galleries. It does a good job of presenting a very sophisticated online collection of enormously varied scope, which I believe no other web site could possibly do very well.

Since launching in February 2011, the online platform now boasts the participation of over 150 galleries across 40 countries. Building from its popular Google Earth and Map technologies, a user can embark on a virtual tour of a gallery using “museum view”, as if one were simply transported to the Hermitage. Interestingly, the Louvre stands among a notable few who have declined to participate, leaving out all of its treasures from the Google collection. You will also find some glaring omissions, such as only one work by Marcel Duchamp. What’s happening here? There’s more than meets the eye.

The idea of pooling the world’s great art works online fulfills the mission of every public art institution. It also allows galleries and museums to achieve greater visibility online and reach a wider audience (the access argument again). But I don’t believe it’s as simplistic as that. A recent article from the American Bar Association Journal discusses the legal ramifications in detail, and I feel that people need to know what’s at stake here – with Google Art Project, Google Books, or any other private company wanting to make absolutely everything available online, for free, forever.

The funny part is that Google had to blur out any non-permissioned work (this includes any work by an anonymous artist) that appears through the “museum view”. This adds up to more than 6,000 blurs, or what I like to call Google’s “naughty bits”. I wonder what Banksy would make of this museum-going experience:

No, it's not "post-modern", it's just the art that Google couldn't obtain the rights for.

No, it’s not “post-modern”, it’s just the art that Google couldn’t obtain the rights for. Photo by Kevin Holmes, 2012

So I’ve summarized what’s been on my mind with regard to art for some time now. I still love art and seek it out whenever I can, but I am unsettled by what’s going on today. There’s great change taking place in the art world, and not just due to artists like Banksy. There are technological influences that are changing how we create, share, and study art. Greater access means we’re increasingly having to confront these changes in our daily lives. We can’t ignore it anymore.

There are also tensions arising between the two opposing realms of art – the public and the private – that I mentioned earlier. It’s getting harder to differentiate between the two. On the one hand, art collections that used to be in the hands of a lucky few now appear online; packaged and for-sale, and I suppose it takes away some of the mystery and exotic-ness of art. We also have a growing market for graffiti art that is taking the wall and putting it in the living room of the millionaire and the gallery where it never meant to belong. What will the collectors of tomorrow think of Banksy’s work breaking auction records? Maybe it will appear like one huge prank played on all of us; a joke – after all, what do rich millionaires know about art? Then again, maybe it will appear as pure genius, and there will be someone like me whining about the time I couldn’t get in “to see any Banksys”.

Fore more information about Banksy, please note that there are only two official websites selling his work: www.banksy.co.uk and www.picturesonwalls.com

To learn more about what’s going on in the world of street art in general, some excellent sites include:

WORLD:  R.J. Rushmore’s Vandalog  http://blog.vandalog.com

U.S.A. (EAST COAST):  the Schiller’s Wooster Collective  www.woostercollective.com

U.S.A. (WEST COAST):  Melrose & Fairfax  http://melroseandfairfax.blogspot.com

NEW YORK CITY:  Becki Fuller and Luna Park’s The Street Spot  http://thestreetspot.com