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Better Out Than In?

4 November 2013

What is the relationship between art and the market? This thorny question, which regularly worries students of art and art history, was one of those also considered by Grayson Perry in his first BBC Reith Lecture. In the series as a whole he has promised to answer some of the ‘big questions’ that ordinary people might have about art. Under the title ‘Democracy has bad taste’ his first lecture considered how different works end up in the museum or gallery, and one of his big answers was the role of the market – auction houses and dealers – and their customers both public and private, in establishing the ‘value’ of pieces of art. The art that is ‘in’ with dealers and collectors is what is agreed as ‘art’ and has value.

Yet, this relationship, has increasingly been called into question in recent years, most notably by artists themselves. In 2008, YBA Damien Hirst infamously chose to hold a one-man sale of mostly new work at Sotheby’s, by-passing the usual route through the commercial gallery or other collector. He set a record, making £111 million in two days. As Maev Kennedy memorably commented in the Guardian, this was more than all the artists in the National Gallery made in a lifetime. The sale began on the very day that Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, and art has become an increasingly popular investment item in the subsequent years. Its value as an investment is only established by considering what it would fetch within the market.

In Perry’s second lecture ‘Beating the Bounds,’ he established a series of ‘tests’ for deciding what is and isn’t art, two of which were ‘Is it in an art space?’ (a museum or gallery), and ‘is it by an artist? He gave the striking example of the graffiti artist Banksy, who created a piece for the Olympics in 2012 showing a child sweatshop worker making Union Jack bunting. Perry recalled that, when the owner of the wall on which this was painted tried to sell the work, the Banksy argued that that the piece was no longer a ‘Banksy’ and was unsaleable as one. He had done his work for the general public, and thus it would, essentially, cease to be a Banksy if removed from that setting. So, its presence on the market would make it cease to be (his) art.

Queues outside Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery for Banksy's Summer Show, June 2009

Queues outside Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery for Banksy’s Summer Show, June 2009

Banksy has made another intervention in the art market more recently. A lot of media attention has been paid to his recent ‘residency’ in New York, entitled ‘Better Out than In’, during which he posted almost daily pictures on his website of new art works, whether graffiti, installation or performance. On 12th October, Banksy put a number of signed works on sale on a stall in Central Park for only $60 each. He told the New York magazine Village Voice ‘I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There is no gallery show or book or film. It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.’

So, where does this leave art, the market, and museums? Undoubtedly, Banksy’s visibility and value were hugely increased when a brave curator at Bristol Museum gave him access to the galleries for the enormously popular show ‘Banksy v Bristol Museum’ in 2009. Is an artist such as Banksy better out than in when it comes to the market? Perhaps the real value is in the tensions between the one and the other.

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