In the cultural landscape of the 21st century digital age, it isn’t every day that a figure from out of the fine art community rises to the surface of the mainstream from beneath the detritus of pop culture gimmicks and tabloid concessions that dominate modern-day media content. Whether the mainstream coalition of crank news providers who pose as sources of viable information choose to direct the public’s attention towards the rumored substance abuse of some Hollywood starlet or other, or toward her suddenly outwardly-sexual coming-of-age, the apparent allure of these tremendously influential “journalistic” presences is often powerful enough to determine what is or is not regarded by the general public as being considered “newsworthy.” It is both refreshing and long-overdue, then, to observe the present-day phenomena of well-deserved buzz that is currently being attached to the work of the mysteriously unidentified street artist known only by a single nickname: “Banksy.”
Banksy, an anonymous guerrilla street artist whose work first began surfacing in the early 2000’s throughout the artist’s native country of England, has established quite a distinguished name for himself in the international art community. His works, which are generally composed of stencil pieces that are fleshed out into almost-living images by means of illegally-placed spray paint, blur the lines between art, graffiti, and social commentary, the marriage of which has led to Banksy’s tremendous fame and notoriety in the realms of both art and popular culture. His original pieces are valued at nearly unthinkable prices; any wall upon which his work appears is generally torn down and auctioned off for more money than its owner could ever have imagined his or her lot might come to fetch for its property value alone. Many of his designs sell for amounts that extend well into the millions, with both Banksy’s artistic talents and the infrequency of their mysterious appearances feeding the flames of his international fame.
It is this particular aspect of Banksy’s impact upon the world that I wish to discuss: the notion of his ability to create something of virtually unprecedented value from essentially next-to-nothing, and the impact that his work has upon those who are graced by his artistic marks.
There are many reasons for Banksy to have remained anonymous for so long, the primary reason being of course that his preferred medium of expression, graffiti, is considered a crime in the form of property destruction (otherwise known as vandalism). However, Banksy’s work raises questions about what constitutes art vs. graffiti, and whether or not such a means of creative output (when executed properly) is as destructive in practice as it is commonly considered in terms of basic principle. His anonymity has only further contributed to the coveted worth of his artistic repertoire; were his identity to be revealed, it is possible that the value of his future works could become diminished due to a lessened demand for his works of art, which are presently sporadic and unpredictable in their appearance. If anyone could simply contact Banksy for an artistic commission, much of the thrill and almost hallowed nature of his pieces would be lost, leaving his creations with less luster than they might have otherwise had, were they to have suddenly appeared overnight in traditional Banksy fashion. But Banksy’s ability to generate value seemingly from nothing doesn’t stop there.
The artist has managed to make a small fortune for himself, receiving commissions for various pieces that he managed to compose while simultaneously preserving his own anonymity, and rightfully so. However, by the same token, he has also managed to contribute significantly to the wealth of certain lucky others who have been fortunate enough to have been graced by the artistic touch of this mysterious artist. In addition to those upon whose property he has left his mark (perhaps the only examples of property destruction that an anarchist and private property advocate such as myself can find to be worthy of my support), Banksy recently endowed small fortunes upon unsuspecting passersby by selling original prints of his works on the open-air streets of New York City.
After posting a display table and an inconspicuous salesman to watch over it, Banksy offered a number of his original canvas prints for sale to the general public. The vast majority of passing pedestrians were unaware of the significance of the art pieces being displayed for sale on the city sidewalk that day, perhaps numbed by the commonality of street vendors and the tedium of their everyday lives. All in all, what Banksy managed to show for his efforts to sell the works to curious onlookers totaled a mere $420, with the artist managing to part with only a handful of pieces throughout the course of the day. His customers, however, had received the deal of a lifetime, accompanied by a hug and a kiss from Banksy’s kindly old salesman, who understood the magnitude of their transactions even better than those who were making the purchases. Each of them had unwittingly inherited a small fortune that day, all thanks to Banksy and his creativity, anonymity, generosity, and ingenuity.
It is for this reason, among others, that (despite vandalism’s stature as a crime against private property in any of its forms, including graffiti) Banksy’s story is ultimately a demonstration of the triumphs of capitalism. For one thing, it is difficult to determine with any measure of certainty whether or not the residual artistic impressions left by Banksy’s hand upon the architectures he selects as his canvasses may be considered vandalism in its truest form or not. Such a distinction can only be made subjectively and on an individual basis, but I am inclined to argue (as are many others, presumably) that because Banksy’s work is so sought-after and fetching of such high prices, his acts of what might otherwise be considered vandalism actually become a form of property enhancement and enrichment. Serving to add outlandish value to their chosen canvasses, Banksy’s pieces could hardly be argued as being in any way damaging to any property for any reasons other than those which are purely sentimental in nature–indeed, most of his imprints add enough worth to the plots upon which they are ingrained to be able to financially cover far more than even the initial property value of the location altogether. Such an outcome is hardly damaging to the owners of any of the sites upon which Banksy has chosen to exercise his craft. This is an economic anomaly in and of itself, and is reason enough to celebrate Banksy for his extraordinary contributions to society. However, his commendable achievements are hardly limited solely to this particular impact; let us consider the ramifications of his recent not-to-be-ignored street vending stunt and the impacts his work managed to have on both the market as well as the consumers who were fortunate enough to have purchased one of the Banksy pieces being offered for sale that day.
Consider for a moment the figure that I had mentioned earlier: $420, which was the amount of money that Banksy had allegedly managed to bring in for himself from the profits of his art sales that day. Taking into account that Banksy had been selling most of the works that day for an asking price of roughly $60, it becomes apparent that in reality, he really didn’t end up selling very many of them at all. However, once the artist’s costs of production have been taken into account, one is able to see how profitable such a day’s outing might have been for an average street-vendor trying to make an average living. Essentially costing only the price of the spray paint and the canvas itself upon which the work was painted, and with very little labor involved to reprint the stencil design, Banksy was able to achieve a relatively high profit margin in exchange for selling his work, with very little costs in terms of energy or materials. He probably took home roughly $300 in profit that afternoon, which would be considered a relatively successful day by most people’s standards of income (especially street vendors). Now, consider the impact that his transactions had on those who purchased his work. Each individual buyer may have spent $60 on any one of his or her chosen prints, but consider the pieces’ true values, which would only reveal themselves after the moment of purchase as being worth thousands upon thousands of dollars in reality. Not only was Banksy able to make a modest, though livable profit from the sale of his exclusively sought-after prints, but he was able to bestow a relatively sizable fortune upon those who bothered to purchase any number of his works. From literally out of almost nothing, Banksy was able to add his time and effort to a piece of canvas and some spray-paint, turning them into an easily-reproduced work of art that was able to fetch not only a reasonable selling price for himself, but also a fortune for those who had purchased one of his pieces–all from an initial manufacturing cost that was practically non-existent. He was basically able to give a fortune away for free, with no cost to him–in fact, he actually profited in the process. This is the compassionate potential of honest capitalism at its most clearly demonstrated.
By adding time and effort to what was essentially nothing in the beginning, an individual may be able to transform something into an item that is of value to both himself and those who find it desirable enough to be worth purchasing. In this case, the results are gratuitously profitable for all parties involved, but this kind of transformation from what was virtually nothing into an object of value through the process of adding human labor to the equation occurs every day in the market, on all levels and scales of magnitude.
Banksy’s work is significant not only for demonstrating that vandalism can sometimes serve as an asset boost in certain rare instances (revealing a market anomaly that has rarely, if ever, been exhibited before this set of circumstances), but also for illuminating the idea that through entrepreneurial enterprising and creativity, prosperity can be achieved by all parties who engage in such a mutually beneficial and voluntary market exchange.
Also worth noting is the fact that the majority of Banksy’s work is technically considered to be a criminal act, and yet, where was the victim in any of these scenarios? Perhaps Banksy’s artistic contributions and their effects on those who encounter them should convey to us all a very specific message about the nature of prosperity and its origins. Such a remarkable story clearly illustrates the idea that real value comes only as the byproduct of both creativity and human effort, and that the elimination of restrictions on individual freedoms often results in increased prosperity for all parties involved. The end results of the exchanges of goods and services that are inevitably brought about by such environmental conditions, which are conducive to unrestricted innovative exploration, are almost unanimously beneficial for all parties involved, economically, artistically, and socially. The case of Banksy’s guerrilla artwork and the fortunes raised by the worth of his works of art are no exception. Indeed, they are instead a perfect demonstration of such an economically promising concept, inherent exclusively to free-market capitalism.