Thursday, October 24, 2013

What do Abramovic and Banksy have in common?

One of the artists is famously present, the other famously absent.

In some respects they make an unlikely pair and the coverage in national media this week of their respective activities is a coincidence—isn’t it? 

The Artist is Present, MoMA
Marina Abramovic became famous by staging ephemeral and often controversial performances—some of which involved self-mutilation. Now she has leveraged her fame to build a physical institution, a monument devoted to performance art. Some are crying foul; others can’t wait for the 33,000 square foot Marina Abramovic Institute to open in Hudson, NY, so that they can pay to “put on white lab coats and undergo three hours of mind-and-body cleansing exercises.” That is according an article that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times.

The article quotes Abramovic as saying “Ego is a huge obstacle to art.” It seems a curious if not contradictory turn of phrase under the circumstances.

Banksy has become famous—some say notorious—by painting and stenciling his distinctive brand of graffiti in unauthorized locations all over the world. I use the term “brand” deliberately. While his work has become commercially valuable, his identity remains elusive. Currently Banksy is spending a month operating, publicly if not visibly, in New York City. He himself (on a website) refers to it as an “artist’s residency.”

But now “banksy” has become a verb, his graffiti sought after and reviled in nearly equal measures, and some of the anonymous artist’s works have sold for six figure sums at auction.

NPR aired an interview yesterday with a Brooklyn resident whose building was “banksied.” The family has struggled with ethical as well as financial consequences. The graffiti first drew a large and appreciative crowd. Then someone spray-painted over the stencils, which the family cleaned off promptly and successfully. After that they installed a garage door over the illicit, but potentially lucrative art that had been dropped in their laps. What’s a victim to do these days?

An appreciative crowd gathers at a "Banksied" site in Chelsea
Cash in is one of the options that the beneficiaries of Banksies artistic attentions have chosen. But what happens to street art after it has been commodified? Banksy himself addresses this issue in ambiguous ways. A story aired on NPR Oct. 14 quotes him as saying, "I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There's no gallery show or book or film. It's pointless. Which hopefully means something."

And was it a snub of the commercial art establishment—even the very people who purchased one of his limited edition prints for $249,000—when he (anonymously, of course) set up a sidewalk kiosk in Central Park with prints priced at $60 each. The artist’s total take for the one day sale was $420. Who got taken, I wonder?

Maybe Abramovic and Banksy have more in common than it seems at first glance. Why shouldn’t they take advantage of opportunities to leverage popularity or notoriety for financial gain? Or do they, each in their own fashion, seem to want it both ways? If ego is in fact an obstacle to art, it certainly isn’t an obstacle to commercial success.

Can either performance art or street art survive commodification? Many critics are asking. The answer is elusive.


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