Banksy: A Question of Art and Utility.

08/30/2016 02:16 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2017
Fig. 1. Banksy, Christ With Shopping Bags. 2004. Screenprint on paper, 70 x 50 cm. Bonhams, London From: Bonhams, https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/20511/lot/24/ (accessed April 17, 2015).

Can Art be Made for Money?

Art for art’s sake is a slogan translated from the French l’art pour l’art, which was coined in the early 19th century by the French philosopher Victor Cousin. The phrase expresses the belief held by many writers and artists, especially those associated with Aestheticism-that art needs no justification, that it need serve no political, didactic, or other end.[1] Street art can be defined as a form of l’art pour l’art. The artist is not expecting to get paid; sometimes the artist doesn’t even sign their work. The goal of street art is to express oneself outside of the traditional institutions of art.[2] In Banksy’s Christ With Shopping Bags 2005, a stenciled screen print depicting Jesus Christ with outstretched arms holding shopping bags, we are confronted with the clashing ideologies of the “pure” Christian ideology and the “impure” capitalist ideology. Banksy’s Christ With Shopping Bags could be interpreted a number of ways. Banksy could be criticizing the commercialization of Christmas. Rather than focusing on the traditional Christian values of love, charity, and compassion, Christmas has become a time of consumption.[3][4] One can also interpret Christ With Shopping Bags to represent that Christ died for one’s right to consume, if one does not consume, then he died for nothing. The interpretation can vary from theory to theory. In either scenario the intent of the artist does not matter. Artwork work can serve different functions in different contexts. Often Banksy leaves his work unsigned, or it exists only temporarily. Other times he presents his artwork in the Museum context.[5] Art has always had this problem, it’s interpretation is always left to be fetishized by the viewer. If it serves a purpose it cannot be l’art pour l’art. If it’s l’art pour l’art, it cannot be a commodity. So how can l’art pour l’art be worth any money at all?

I. What is Art

The less of a purpose that something serves, the purer the artform becomes. Objects that have a utilitarian purpose are not considered ‘high art’. A chair is not as artistic as a painting because a chair has more utility than a painting. Capitalism has already defined what art is, Art is a cultural reaction to the change function.[6] Thus, the author is only as important as the actor, as the physical embodiment of the Zeitgeist.

The Zeitgeist (spirit of the age or spirit of the time) is the intellectual fashion or dominant school of thought that typifies and influences the culture of a particular period in time.[7][8] For example, Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both invented derivative calculus entirely separate of each other at exactly the same time.[9] Banksy’s Christ With Shopping Bags embodies the zeitgeist of today’s consumer society, while also embodying the innovation of spray paint and ideological anti-art. This is the authentic nature of art: to express the historical significance of any given time period, to visually display ideological shifts, and to demonstrate the innovations of said era.

II. Art and Capitalism

l’art pour l’art can exist as a commodity. l’art pour l’art can be presented in gallery spaces, framed, hung with wire, and placed in prime real estate locations with the intent to be bought and sold. The literal and figurative frame are innovations solely created by the market for art. There are a long list of artists that created art for commercial purposes; masters and non-masters alike are recognized by the discourse as authentic representations of the era in which they lived. Raphael was notorious for the large body of paid commissions that he produced throughout his career,[10] and Michelangelo was a sculptor who disliked painting, yet he painted the Sistine Chapel as a paid commission.[11] Art throughout history can be authentically portrayed as a commodity.

The master painters are the perfect example of the creation of capital. There are countless artists whom almost exclusively work within workshops utilizing the Money Commodity Money structure.[12] The capitalist purchases labor in order to convert it into a commodity, then resells the labor commodity with the intent to make profit.[13] Workshop masters take in apprentices and hire other hands to create their artwork; this was the tradition for thousands of years. The paradox of which the worker only works as hard as one needs to in order to survive[14], and the capitalist’s goal of having the worker generate surplus labor, is exemplified through the discourse of art, which festishizes the worker into creating something more, something ‘for the sake of art’.[15][16] Literally speaking, in today’s world the artist is expected to work for free or it’s not art.

In Banksy’s film Exit through the gift shop. The character Mr. Brainwash, portrays the perfect example of worker exploitation in terms of a capitalist workshop.[17] It’s important to note that Mr. Brainwash learned this method of exploitation from hands on experience within Banksy’s workshop.[18] Mr. Brainwash hires artists through newspaper ads, and does little to nothing creative, as he has no creative skillsets. The workshop artists are provided just enough to sustain them.[19] They do not own the means of production, and because of this, they must sell their own labor power.[20] The master, Mr. Brainwash, who may have had little to no participation in the actual creation of the work, takes full credit for the creation of said artwork, and resells it for more.[21] You see, the capitalist bureaucratic system has co-existed with fine art all along, and still exists. Art may have been the earliest embodiment of Capitalism. Renaissance artists were hired with contracts, and every part of the contract was negotiated, even what percentage of the final painting the Master will paint himself.

III The Types of Value

Money exists as a way to express the exchange value of human labor embodied within an object, as transitory between the Commodity-Money-Commodity relationship, to literally weigh the value of the labor embodied within any object.[22] There are three types of value; use value, exchange value, and labor value. ‘The utility of a thing gives it a use value.’[23] Exchange value is determined by the relationship in which an object is exchanged for another, such as the value a commodity is sold for at an auction house. Labor value is the number of hours a person can work on something. Commodities must have a use value, an exchange value, and a labor value simultaneously.[24] For example, a pair of boots, which helps us walk, arguably a utility, has an exchange value  in dollars representing the labor value required to create said boots. So here is where the paradox occurs, how can l’art pour l’art, which can be created with no use value whatsoever, no use to society, have an exchange value, price, at all?

Thus the exchange value of art, much like the exchange value of going swimming, is only determined as being valuable by being recognized by society as valuable.[25] No ones pays me to go swimming because me swimming serves no use to society. On the other hand, Michael Phelps is paid to go swimming because he represents a use to society, through entertainment, or national pride, whatever use value he has. Society only values things in terms of the use it’s set to uphold; such as art made for advertisements.

Thus, in order to have an exchange value or monetary value, art has to be recognized, like all commodities, as something valuable to society itself.[26] An artist may use their personal labor to determine what they think their art is valued at, but the exchange value of art is purely a social construct, as it’s value is determined by social authenticity. The labor value put into an artwork does not affect the exchange value of the artwork whatsoever.

Banksy’s Christ With Shopping Bags delivers an anti-consumption message in a world riddled by the travesties of capitalism. Since Christ With Shopping Bags is a print, it’s authenticity is validated as authentic street art because it’s made by Banksy. Banksy’s numbered editions have been know to receive enormous bids at auction, Family Target (Family Portrait), a limited edition stencil painting numbered 3/25 was purchased for $64,148 in 2014.[27] The labor value embodied within Family Target(Family Portrait) does not equate to such high numbers, the price of this work was determined by it’s authenticity, and the relative demand for that authenticity, as a pure exchange value.  

IV. The Caves

Banksy’s artwork exists in two separate realms, first as vandalism, then as fine art.[28] As a representation of vandalism, Banksy’s work serves no labor value in relation to society, but rather as quite the opposite. Vandalism is a crime in many jurisdictions. Only as a representation within the social context of the genre ‘street art’ does Banksy’s work become valuable whatsoever. It no longer exists to vandalize a wall, it now exists as fine art. If a restaurant or Museum were to pay for their building to be vandalized, it would exist within the context of fine art, but also as a commodity. Banksy’s artwork transcends vandalism and becomes a commodity whose value is determined by the demand for authentic vandalism. It is only at this point does Banksy’s artwork include an exchange value whatsoever, for his work was literally worthless as vandalism, but now priceless as authentic street art.

‘Pure art’ exists as the ultimate class exploitation, it represents a class struggle that the artist has already lost. We go out of our way to fetishize the lives of artist, socially romanticizing the types of labor associated with commodities in which they created.[29]  Interpretation is subjective and the intent of the artist is not important.  Research suggests that the famous French LasCaux cave paintings served as a form of worship in an era without written language.[30] They could also have been a rich caveman’s housing decorations, we may never know. If the cave paintings become l’art pour l’art, it only became such after the discourse ‘discovered’ it. Before the discovery, the caves didn’t exist, after the discovery, the caves became a commodifiable tourist attraction. The discourse, through its recognition of the caves, turned the caves into a commodity through art history. Arguably, if the cave paintings did serve a religious purpose, then they have a use value to society for religious purposes, and thus exist as a commodity.

True art exists as a reaction to the change in function.[31] Art intended to be a commodity, like that of Raphael’s can be high art, while art like Banksy’s anti-institutional l’art pour l’art, can be a commodity.

Originally shared on cedricchambers.com

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Bibliography

[1] “Art for Art’s Sake,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, January 22, 2015, <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/36541/art-for-arts-sake> (Accessed April 27, 2015).

[2]Allan Schwartzman, Street Art, (Garden City, N.Y.: Dial Press, 1985), 9

[3] Sean Lynch, “The 50 Greatest Banksy Works of All Time,” Complex, November 1, 2013, <http://www.complex.com/style/2013/11/banksy-greatest-works/paris-hilton-reworked-album-dangermouse-collabor> (Accessed April 26, 2015).

[4] “Jesus Christ with Shopping Bags by Banksy,” Stencil Revolution RSS, April 19, 2013, http://www.stencilrevolution.com/banksy-art-prints/jesus-christ-with-shopping-bags/> (Accessed April 28, 2015).

[5]Lee Coan, “Breaking the Banksy,” Mail Online, June 13, 2008, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1024130/Breaking-Banksy-The-interview-worlds-elusive-artist.html> (Accessed April 27, 2015).

[6] Dean, Tim. “Art as Symptom: Žižek and the Ethics of Psychoanalytic Criticism.” Diacritics 2, no. 32 (2002): 21-41.

[7]Glenn Alexander Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, (London: Continuum, 2010), 262

[8]Eero Saarinen, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. Eds. Eeva Pelkonen and Finland Helsinki. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 15

[9] Reyes, Mitchell (2004). “The Rhetoric in Mathematics: Newton, Leibniz, the Calculus, and the Rhetorical Force of the Infinitesimal”. Quarterly Journal of Speech 90: 159–184.

[10] Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, Trans. George Bull (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1987), 208, 230.

[11] Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, Ed. Hellmut Wohl; Trans. Alice Wohl (University Park, P.A.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 9

[12] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 2858/18828.

[13] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 2858/18828.

[14] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 4891/18828.

[15] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 8952/18828.

[16] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 9750/18828.

[17] Exit through the Gift Shop. Performed by Banksy. Paranoid Pictures Film Company Limited, 2010. Film

[18] Exit through the Gift Shop. Performed by Banksy. Paranoid Pictures Film Company Limited, 2010. Film.

[19] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 6754/18828.

[20] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 3193/18828.

[21] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 10025/18828.

[22] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 1676/18828.

[23] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition.Location 1063/18828.

[24] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition.Location 1512/18828.

[25] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition.1336/18828.

[26] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 1512/18828.

[27] Banksy. “Banksy FAMILY TARGET (FAMILY PORTRAIT),” exh. cat. Sotheby’s, October 18, 2014,         <http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/contemporary-art-day-auction-l14025/lot.349.html> (Accessed April 26, 2015).

[28] Exit through the Gift Shop. Performed by Banksy. Paranoid Pictures Film Company Limited, 2010. Film.

[29] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 1776/18828.

[30]Mario Ruspoli, The Cave of Lascaux: A Final Photographic Record, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), 146-47

[31] Dean, Tim. “Art as Symptom: Žižek and the Ethics of Psychoanalytic Criticism.” Diacritics 2, no. 32 (2002): 21-41.

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