Celebrated street artist Banksy’s famous painting of a girl standing under an umbrella was defaced with red spray paint over the holiday. (It is currently being restored.) The identity of the vandal or vandals is as yet unknown, and will probably remain so given the at best legally ambiguous nature of Banksy’s work. While Banksy’s paintings are appreciated by many, the defacement provokes this question: Should his work be considered sacrosanct?
By choosing public space as his canvas, he is operating in a living, competitive environment: a rich artistic biome full of taggers, street artists, sloganeers and run of the mill vandals. Defacing or modifying the work of competitors is par for the course in this Darwinian milieu. Should we, as Banksy’s audience, be any more outraged when his work is defaced than we would be when another street artist has his labor destroyed?
It can be argued that the public outcry is symptomatic of personal identification with a brand and acceptance of its commodification. There are other artists who are just as talented as Banksy, some of whom may be working in the same streets (and could even consider him an hyped-up interloper), but rarely does the destruction of their work provoke a national response.
Banksy’s carefully cultivated anonymity makes it difficult to hazard a guess to what his opinion might be, but I suspect that he must understand the transient nature of his medium and the “law of the jungle” that all street artists operate under. He certainly understands the commodified aspects of his work and how it affects people’s perception of aesthetic value – his flash sale in Central Park seems to be a nod at that.
To say that our anonymous vandal did his work to get us all talking about capitalism and the perceived value of art may be a stretch, but the fact that he tossed the can of cheap spray paint at the feet of the little girl depicted in the painting is certainly provocative – and provoking questions is what a good piece of art does.