October 17, 2018


Legerdemain is quite a word. It seems at first blush, something to admire. And it is, sort of. Looking up its definition in the dictionary, legerdemain is the skillful use of one's hands when performing conjuring tricks. We rightly admire the magician only when we suspend disbelief. When we go wrong, we let ourselves fall under a spell, we believe that a rabbit is miraculously pulled from the hat. We are deceived.

The word jumped out at me when I read Kenny Schachter's recent column in ArtNet Magazine regarding the Banksy stunt. Here's the final paragraph:
In a realm as chockablock with legerdemain as the art world, what matters, at the end of the day, is the the audience enjoyed the show. With his star turn at Sotheby's, Banksy gave us all a command performance.

I'm posting this because a week ago, I wrote a note about the Banksy action. And then I sat on it to see how it would age.

A note on the Banksy stunt.

What happened wasn't destruction. What happened was a theater of destruction. The piece was modified, not destroyed. Banksy probably was aware that the immediate systemic market value of art is driven by notoriety. The value of the Mona Lisa was supercharged by the news of its theft. Guernica is certainly a masterpiece (although recently, I had a conversation with a friend who questioned this assumption), but its topicality in the midst of WWII and its sympathetic instrumentalization as anti-war propaganda is in the driver's seat of its valuation. Watching the PBS program Antiques Road Show recently, I marveled at remarkable works of art and craft whose valuations were a pittance, contrary to the expenditure of creativity, imagination and soul in their making. Other objects were assigned astronomical valuations simply because they were Pop culture talismans, forever dependent on the whim of contemporary valuation.

Shock is no longer new. This, is the riddle of our time. Artists should attend to that reality.

What does transgression serve? This question opens a way to distinguish its various forms. It can either serve art intrinsically, it can serve the game (when art = money), or it can simply serve itself. Is art simply a stunt? Banksy was canny, shrewd in matters of business and marketing. He staged a theater of transgression, carefully calibrated to play within the acceptable domain of the collectable artifact. He didn't dissolve the piece in a pool of acid. It didn't combust in the pyrotechnics of flash paper. What was placed before the auction house was a work in progress, a performance to an audience who are disposed to delight in dramas of disobedience. He made something calculated to be notorious and thus to increase its value, which it did double by some estimates. The system of art (and some call it an industry, a term that should be abhorrent) begs to be hustled.

Banksy cited in his Instagram, one of Picasso's famous quotes "The urge to destroy is also the creative urge". Indeed, transgression is the wheelhouse of art. The progression of art history is the generational succession that questioned cultural inheritance and remade art to suit the contemporary milieu. Like the solvent and binder of painting, art proceeds in sequences of dissolving and uniting in turn. The big question today is whether art history exists. Or better formulated, can it... should it... exist after Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man?

The continuing revolution of modernity addicts us to the frisson of transgression and beguiles us to forget the need to resolve -if even for a fleeting moment- the chaos and snap art into a new gestalt. But what if an artist includes the marketplace into their creative realm? Did Banksy undertake a critique and resolution? Did he outperform Koons? Did he exceed Rauschenberg's erased de Kooning?

I think the ultimate question is whether it is actually more than mere novelty. What if Banksy is striving to be more than the outlaw graffiti tagger, an identity that has rusted quite a bit since its birth in the 70's. He clearly wants to be a rogue agent in the art marketplace, a tagger in the auction house. What if he is instead an in-law of the market, an engineer of a gamed system? Can one be both?

What about art? Is the Bansky action an evolution in art history?

Does art history even exist?

Kenny Schachter and much of our art world seems to be amused by the sleight of hand in the gamed system. Whether they are seeing a staged act or a miracle of transgression is a distinction that remains to be seen.

Posted by Dennis at October 17, 2018 1:08 PM

1 Comment

I do not find anything remarkable about Banksy's original framed image. For me it's the sort of sentimental schlook best suited to adorn a Hallmark card. As regards the conjuring trick, again I am sure it would have been a hit at a kids birthday party. You can argue that all Art is a conjuring trick. I often look at my own work that way. From that vantage point I would argue that it's all in the quality of the tricks you perform.

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