Last night I went to the world’s first sale of urban art at Bonham’s in New Bond Street. Urban art has recently emerged as a contemporary art category and recognizes graffiti or street art as fine art. No ticket or registration was required for entry, which probably accounted for the attendance of over 500 people. The showroom was packed, full of energy, and uncomfortably warm.
Three works by Banksy, one of the highest profiling urban artists working today, fetched the highest prices of the evening. Laugh Now (2002), which is a mural of ten spray painted monkeys wearing placards that are either blank or read “laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge”, fetched the highest price at £190,000.
Banksy began as a graffiti artist in Bristol during the 1980s. In the beginning his works were largely executed in a free-hand style; however, in 2000 he adopted the stencil style that he is so well known for today. Banksy’s graffiti statements are raw and inspired, which probably accounts for his popularity and commercial clout.
On his website Banksy’s speaks out against the sale of his art at auctions: “I don't agree with auction houses selling street art - its undemocratic, it glorifies greed and I never see any of the money.” He also claims that he “only ever mount[s] shows in warehouses or war zones or places full of live animals” saying that he is “aware the pictures don't stand up on their own.”
Indeed the notion of urban art in galleries or auction houses, or hanging on the collector’s wall is completely ironic and paradoxical. The label of urban art defines itself in relation to the urban landscape. The power and beauty of Banksy’s works are intrinsically linked to their situation and ephemeral nature. His often brash and sometimes poetic and touching images require a context against which the critique or refuge can be situated. Their impermanence intensifies and condenses their poignancy; the critiques and protests are made almost desperate by the inevitability of their being silenced, and the hopeful images assume the promising but ultimately empty auras of desert mirages. It is ironic then that the works that inspired the highest bids cease to inspire when owned.
99% of the work sold, “a truly extraordinary phenomenon that the market has never seen before”, according to Bonham’s. Other notable artists represented at the sale last night include Keith Haring, Antony Micallef, Adam Neate, Faile, Paul Insect, Space Invader, Swoon, D*Face, Shepard Fairey.