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Now here’s a curious story, concerning an artwork by ‘Banksy’ – the anonymous, but highly successful, street artist. It concerns a piece entitled Slave Labour, which was sprayed on to the side of Poundland shop last year. To much consternation, the mural was subsequently removed by the owners of the building, with a view to selling it:

The BBC reports on the latest developments:

  • “A Banksy artwork that went missing from a wall in north London is being auctioned for a second time.
  • “The mural Slave Labour was taken from Wood Green in February. It later appeared at a Miami auction, but was withdrawn after protests.
  • “The graffiti art has been offered for sale in London by the Sincura Group. The minimum bid is £900,000.
  • “MP Lynne Featherstone has urged the owners of the mural to give it back to the residents of north London.”

Another MP, Labour’s Mary Creagh, was moved to tweet the following:

  • “I find the privatisation of Banksy's mural Slave Labour, art intended for the people, incredibly depressing.”

We could argue all day about definitions of “art” and “the people”, but one thing’s for sure, the mural was privatised when it was spray-painted onto someone’s private property. Banksy isn’t exactly the only graffiti artist at work in this country: all manner of daubs appear on walls and doors and bus shelters everyday – are these to be preserved as art for the people too?

Perhaps it only counts as art if it conveys a political message? If so, what would happen if, say, Matt Sinclair of the Taxpayers Alliance used the medium of marker pens and the front door of Mary Creagh’s house to wittily explore the proposition that all tax is theft? One doubts she’d regard that as art for the people.

Or what if a pro-life graffiti artist were to spray-paint the semblance of blood oozing from the walls of an abortion clinic? How do you think that would go down with Banksy’s right-on admirers? 

For a more considered view of Banksy and his work, you won’t do better than Theodore Dalrymple’s superb article for City Journal. Though highly critical of his subject, the author has some words of praise:

  • “He has some graphic ability, and it is not his fault if his productions have been taken seriously as art… He is highly intelligent and undoubtedly witty. Some of his productions make you smile, and others make you laugh; his implicit criticisms of society can be trenchant, especially if you know the British context. He can sometimes suggest quite a lot with economical means.”

One also can’t help smiling at the following:

  • “He has… produced a print of an auctioneer taking bids for a 'picture' that consists of the words I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU MORONS ACTUALLY BUY THIS SHIT. Banksy sold about 1,000 of these prints for $180,000 in total, but they were soon selling at auction for $5,000 apiece.”

But having given Banksy his due, Dalrymple then gives him both barrels. To get the whole effect you need to read the whole thing, but the following excerpt gets to the heart of the matter:

  • “Banksy argues that all public space should be available for self-expression by the people, forgetting that the majority of the people may want to express themselves by leaving elegant blank walls elegantly blank. But then, they are only people, not the people, a crucial distinction in Banksy’s mind.”

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