I came across an article published in the Huffington Post a couple of days ago in regards to a work by Banksy known as the “Slave Labor (Bunting Boy),” which had been “stolen” from its original context in London and then put for sale by an Auction House in Miami. Despite the fact that this may not have been the first time that a work by Banksy has been stolen, I believe this one piece brings a very interesting opportunity to question the value and importance of the work of art, the role of the Art Market and consider some value judgments about whether or not it was actually “stolen” and from whom exactly it has been “stolen.”
It seemed to be almost outrageous that a graffiti-work, which out of all forms of art is mostly known for its intent to defy the institutions of art and in particular the commodification of art, be stolen by an Auction House hungry to make some good money. Despite the upsetting fact that said work had been removed from its wall, it seems worse to think that the Auction House had actually compromised the value (by value I mean importance, not monetary cost) of the piece by absolutely defeating its purpose and decontextualizing its meaning.
My second consideration was in regards to the allegations of the work being “stolen.” The theft supported my negative feelings about the Auction House, but their assurance that the work had been acquired legally made me think again about whether or not I would actually consider this a theft, and if so, from whom had the work been stolen? My first thought was: Since it was placed in public space it obviously belonged to the people, just like the article had indicated commenting on how infuriated the community was and how they demanded that the work be returned. After all, the work had become an iconic image of that particular community and was valued almost as one would value another monument of cultural heritage, except off course this particular work didn’t have the age classification and therefore no legal case could be made to try re-appropriate it.
Nevertheless, you are faced with the reality that the graffiti was placed in a wall, which after all is of the property of this one owner. Legally speaking, since the work had been placed in a specific wall, it belonged to the property owner and he/she has the right to decide what to do with it. If in fact the work was removed illegally, then was it stolen not from the people, but from its rightful wall-owner? Or does it belong to the artist? As the case stands the owner denies that he/she had anything to do with the removal of the graffiti, while the Auction House assures that it was acquired legally, and so the questions remains: Who is lying? Furthermore, can we actually consider the removal of a graffiti something stealable? One would think that given its nature and the fact that it was put in a “public space,” the work is not only intended to reject commodification, but denies having an owner in any possible sense. And if it doesn’t belong to anybody, and yet to everybody, can it technically be stolen?
My next consideration was: If over half a million dollars would be made in the auction from the sale of the work, should the artist be compensated? Granted that Banksy remains anonymous, is it right to remove his work and make money from it?
Finally, I considered the issue of the actual value of the work of art. Made in a specific place and time, the meaning of the work is intrinsically attached to its context. More than holding value solely for the fact of being made by this super famous anonymous figure/icon of graffiti art, the work was valuable for its specific commentary and significance to England and the British people. Or can the work be equally valued in a different context and environment (i.e private collection) altogether? If not, are all those other works of “art” like African masks, Native American sacred objects or by that matter, all those other objects of material culture, important anymore as they too have been decontextualized to be collected in all kinds of institutions/houses around the world?
Facing this set of dilemmas in regards to the stolen case of the Slave Labor (Bunting Boy), I can’t stop asking myself: What is the true value of art? And who gets to decide it?