Banksy, the notorious and anonymous artist, posted a strange video on his official Instagram in May of last year. What he shared made waves in the art world and led to more publicity for an artist who has made his name through scandal, intrigue, and more than a little daring. The piece, entitled “Venice in Oil”, occurred during the famous Venice Biennale on the streets near the event.
The Venice Biennale is one of the, if not the, premier art events in the world. Launched over a hundred years ago in 1895, the biennial event is filled with all kinds of work by artists worldwide, from painting and dancing to music and, quite notably, film — it is home to the Venice Film Festival, one of the Big Three in international film festivals (the other two being Cannes and Berlin). With such a prestigious history, being picked for their exhibitions is one of the most coveted wins in an artist’s career.
Interesting that they’ve never picked Banksy.
The Venice Situation
In protest to that fact — and in protest to the current state of the city of Venice and the art world as a whole — the artist provocateur did what he does best: provoke. His unsanctioned piece near the Venice Biennale was a man, face mysteriously covered by a newspaper (speculated to be Banksy himself), hocking paintings of Venice without a license. These paintings are familiar views of the city with the addition of an enormous cruise ship. The white, hulking vessel clogs up the city’s famous waterways, choking out the grandeur of a city with a cultural largesse entirely wrapped up in the very grandeur the cruise ship blocks out.
While Venice is a city of major cultural heritage and an ongoing artistic hub for Europe and the world at large, the pervasive lurch into commercialization of everything and everyone is made clear by Banksy’s stunt. The cruise ship issue is actually a major hot-button issue in local Venetian politics. UNESCO notes that the ever growing tourist economy is wreaking havoc on the life of locals, driving out housing in favor of tourist accommodations and driving up prices on day-to-day goods.
In a sad case of life imitating and outpacing art, about a month after the video of Banksy’s Venice visit hit his Instagram, a cruise ship crashed in the city, injuring five people and causing a massive amount of property damage. Due to this problem, Venice began rerouting some cruise ships in August of 2019, a month where almost 3 million tourists visited the city.
The Discussion Banksy Wants Us to Have
This came hot off the heels of his “Love Is in the Bin” fiasco, where a work of his was partially destroyed by a hidden shredder seconds after it sold at a Sotheby’s auction. And so we track a major target of Banksy’s ire: the commercialization of the art world.
While art has long been captured by the rich in society, some of the trends in past decades are alarming. With ever growing price tags at auction houses and the shrinking place of art in the public sphere, it does appear that art is more walled off from working people than ever before.
Banksy’s bizarre combination of self aggrandizement and social critique in “Venice in Oil” alert us to the strange position of the artist in all of this. Today, for an artist to succeed in feeding herself with income from her art, she must participate in the commercial side of the industry. After all, when a painting sells for a million dollars, much of that money ends up going to a very happy artist. But the reliance on a market dominated by the super rich means that a small group of people begin to dictate what art succeeds and what does not. If your art doesn’t appeal to the super rich? You are unlikely to make much money with them.
Art that is hidden away in the halls of fancy art festivals will never capture the imagination of the public at large and never unlock the potential for artists to make a statement that reaches the majority of people.
Where Does That Leave Us?
And so, back to the man selling paintings on a Venice street, where does this vendor sit in all of this? Banksy’s character in “Venice in Oil” represents a figure that is slowly being pushed out of the art world: the working artist who sells on a small level. Through the increased control of public spaces (note that Banksy’s artist did not have a license), the closed off nature of prestigious art exhibitions, and the commercialization of everything, where is the working artist left to go?
It is not necessarily so dire a situation. After all, Banksy himself has no trouble making money off of his art. Not only that, but he is one of the most widely known artists today with a reach far beyond the traditional art world set. His Instagram account, which he used to publish the Venice piece, has over seven million followers. And his work routinely sells for gangbuster prices. So sure, these problems of commercialization might mean trouble for many artists, but not Banksy. That leaves two ways to look at it: either he is talking about something he doesn’t really understand, or he is raising concerns of his fellow artists and using his elevated profile to bring the issue to a higher level.
Either way, people are listening.