Banksy is one of the world’s most popular and (ironically) recognisable artists, and many of his works have become 21st century icons, available as t-shirts, pencil cases or anti-establishment phone cases for your Apple™ iPhone. Therefore, it came as no surprise when his painting, Devolved Parliament, recently sold for £9.9 million at an auction at Sotheby’s.
This is the highest price ever paid at auction for a Banksy artwork; previously the record had been £1.3 million for Keep it Spotless. Despite the high price, the sale should not be taken as Banksy ‘selling out’, since, as he was keen to make clear, he “didn’t still own” the painting. However, the appropriation of the graffiti artist’s work by the bizarre world of the art market is indicative of the ironies and contradictions inherent in his current status.
“MPs are replaced by apes, behaving in a more civilized manner than many MPs during Prime Minister’s Questions, sat in a dark, imposing House of Commons.”
The colossal painting, which measures 8ft x 14ft, was first displayed in 2009, despite the subject matter seeming more pertinent than ever today. MPs are replaced by apes, behaving in a more civilized manner than many MPs during Prime Minister’s Questions, sat in a dark, imposing House of Commons. The price it raised was unexpected, with its estimated price set at only £2 million, but anyone who tries to draw rational conclusions from the prices art sells for at auction is fighting a losing battle. Opinion is very much divided as to whether Banksy’s work warranted such a sum, with Sotheby’s describing the painting as “potent and poignant”, but Cal Revely-Calder of the Telegraph calling the painting, and its price, a “joke”.
The irony at play is that Banksy’s works are often political and present uncomfortable aspects of our society, such as child refugees drowning on toy boats, but somehow, they have become the vacuous, hipster equivalent of those ‘live, laugh, love’ signs. Banksy is also simultaneously supposed to be an elusive, anonymous street artist, but at the same time is a global pop-cultural phenomenon: his works aren’t painted over any more, they are preserved, framed, put in art galleries. As often is the case with satirists, his work has been adopted by the establishment in order to create a harmless illusion of dissent, without any real threat to the establishment.
“This is good news for anyone who wakes up with a Banksy on their garage door.”
As a graffiti artist, Banksy is undeniably brilliant. He creates subversive, immediately impactful images, which comment on modern life with wit and irony. Glimpsed on a street, or scrolled past on Instagram, that’s great. But in an art gallery, it feels superficial. The painting in question, Devolved Parliament, appears to essentially be a bad pun and the astute observation: “Politicians are like chimpanzees or something.” Art, to hold its own in an art gallery, must surely have some indescribable, transcendent aspect, but the closest Banksy comes to this is the soppy sentimentality of Girl with Balloon. But if that’s what the art market deems to be valuable, that is what is valuable. This is good news for anyone who wakes up with a Banksy on their garage door.
Despite this cynicism, if a future art historian wanted to understand art in the 21st century, Banksy’s art, and Devolved Parliament in particular, would be the place to start. He understands modern life as well as anyone. He epitomises our demand for easily digestible, clickable art. He commented on, but then became a subject of, our obsession with fame, celebrity and status. Though there are contradictions in the work and the character of Banksy, they are the same contradictions that exist in our society.
Last modified: 27th October 2019