No one knows the true identity of Banksy, but one thing’s for sure, he’s all about exploiting artworks out of context against the wishes of their creators. That's not really what Banksy believes, but it’s what the good people at Exhibition Hub and Fever would have you believe he believes. They’re the ones behind the sold out exhibit, Banksy: Genius or Vandal? in Los Angeles through January.
Curated by Moscow-based Alexander Nachkebiya, the show features over eighty genuine works belonging to private collectors including numerous screen prints from Banksy’s studio. It premiered in 2018 in the Russian capital, triggering a response from the artist on Instagram saying, “You know its (sic) got nothing to do with me right? I don’t charge people to see my art unless there’s a fairground wheel.” Even so, the public adores the new exhibit, drawn irresistibly to its Instagramability. Success has spawned copycat shows around the globe, and triggered scorn from an art community already besieged by hypercapitalism.
“His whole thing is out on the street, free for everyone. So it feels shady to me. The fact that it’s kind of a lot of money, an obvious money grab,” says LA Weekly Arts Editor Shana Nys Dambrot of the show’s $30 entry fee. “Banksy is very cause oriented, money gets donated to causes, work is done to draw attention to political events and that’s a part of who he is. And I couldn't find that anywhere. I’m skeptical of the pure capitalist motivation behind charging this exorbitant admission.”
Il Pasquino guards the exhibit’s entrance, a replica of one of Rome’s famous “talking statues” on which anonymous notes were posted, often critical of the power structure and considered by some to be prototypical graffitti. Nearby is a dimly lit diorama of the artist’s studio as seen in his documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. In it, a hooded figure of Banksy sits among his works. Former collaborator Steve Lazarides’ photos show the artist at work in various locations, while other galleries offer screen prints of iconic images—the chimp, the bobbie, the ubiquitous rat, the protester throwing a molotov cocktail, its fuse replaced by a bouquet of flowers—all displayed in dark galleries, glowing against black walls.
Unexpected works reference modern legends like Basquiat whose signature crown acts as cars on a ferris wheel. Another includes one of Keith Haring’s dogs, and another features Warhol’s tomato soup cans. Watch on video as Girl With Balloon gets shredded upon its sale at Sothebys in 2018. Banksy’s satirical comment on art and capitalism upped the artwork’s value from $1.4 million to $25.4 million. While his sardonic take on societal ills is omnipresent, the works are inevitably diminished out of context. Sure, you can step into an immersive room with four-wall projections, but immersive it isn’t. You can even try the VR tour of his work in situ, but it’s not the same.
After successful runs in Brussels and New York, the people at Fever drew a press black out in Los Angeles following a skeptical piece by the Los Angeles Times. In it, many are critical of artwork being shown against the wishes of the artist. Shepard Fairey commented, “I’d imagine Banksy disapproves of his works being removed from the streets to be put into captivity with a price to enter. He has often shrewdly commented on the forces and farces of capitalism. That being said, 30 bucks might easily justify close proximity to Banksy works with the possibility of a totally fire selfie for Instagram. I certainly approve of someone going to the show if it prompts them to understand the concepts in Banksy’s work more deeply.”
Exhibition Hub and Fever also partnered for "The Immersive Experience" Van Gogh, Monet, and Klimt shows—each committed to degrading texture, color, and scale of artworks in order to exploit the famous names of their dead creators.
But even if the snobs hate it, baby thinks it’s cool. “There’s thousands of kids who are going to be artists now cause they walked into that and got their tiny minds blown,” laughs Dambrot. “They learned about Van Gogh and now they know something about art, and sometimes that’s all it takes.”
Banksy: Vandal or Genius? might have the same impact on tiny minds if it felt a bit more like Banksy. Anyone familiar with 2015’s Dismaland, his “bemusement park'' take on theme parks, knows he has a knack for spectacle. “If it was really a Banksy joint, I know that there would be a total gesamtkunstwerk, like an opera. I know this isn't that,” sighs Dambrot. “Say what you want, he’s not about a personal cash grab.”