A few days ago, the New York Times ran an article on the World Economic Forum, held every year in Davos, Switzerland for economic and political bigwigs from across the globe. It’s an elite, exclusive affair that attracts its share of celebrities to its 1% shoulder-rubbing. (Matt Damon is expected to attend this year. Shakira and Forest Whitaker will receive awards.) The Times notes that every year one of the most popular extracurricular/party events is, “a simulation of a refugee’s experience, where Davos attendees crawl on their hands and knees and pretend to flee from advancing armies.” Tone-deaf is the most generous description you can give to such an appalling excuse for a shindig.
That Davos shitfest comes to mind while watching director Colin M. Day’s documentary Saving Banksy, about one selfless soul’s attempt to save a Banksy piece from demolition (being painted over) and donate it to a museum so future generations will be able to see it. Our hero is San Francisco-based art collector Brian Greif, and one thread of his battle is the fact that there’s a huge market for Banksy works among wealthy art collectors. Many pieces have been excised from the public walls Banksy painted them on and then sold into private collections, a practice the artist has denounced as antithetical to the whole point of his politically charged, anti-capitalistic work. But if we live in a world in which the most powerful and wealthy gather in rarified environs to network, and then – either for shits and giggles, or in the most obnoxious effort to dredge up empathy – recreate the struggle of the most disenfranchised, is it any surprise that artifacts born of struggle and created to protest inequity would be commodified into collectibles for the rich?
Day deftly fills in the backdrop against which Greif is working, using assorted street artists (from legendary French street artist Blek le Rat to German Hera, with other major figures from around the world) to fill in the history of the form, draw the line between graffiti and street art, talk about the consequences of creating art outside the boundaries of the law, and how the temporality of the form is very much a part of its politics of protest. British street artist Ben Eines does a lot of the heavy-lifting, serving as a sort of narrator/moderator of the conversation, chiming in with commentary both biting and informative as the film makes its way to its Greif-driven main storyline. There’s even a heavily accented villain in the form of art dealer Stephan Keszler, who is right out of central casting. (Banksy, of course, never appears in the film except via his work.) The film moves fast but doesn’t shortchange the viewer on either substantive, provocative ideas or examples of street art; it’s a rich crash course for the novice while also being worthwhile for dedicated aficionados.
What the film doesn’t do, though, is grapple with the tensions and even hypocrisies of some of the artists. They sniff at the arrogance, timidity and cluelessness of museums that balk at accepting Greif’s no-strings/no charge gift of the Banksy piece he saves. They bristle at the rejection of institutional housing and validation of the work, yet they come out guns blazing at galleries and private collectors. There’s an unexamined desire for validation from these organizations that are funded by the wealthy, that are rooted in centuries-old patronage by the elite and even as they make art available to the masses are still very much about maintaining a capitalistic status quo. The film even uses a Banksy quote that says as much: “When you go to a museum, you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.”
That the museums being chastised for bypassing Banksy and the private collectors lambasted for hoarding his work are two arms of the same beast – the hand of one arm admittedly more generous than the other – is a nuanced conversation worth having, especially in the context of talking about art whose aim is to mercilessly critique capitalism’s many tentacles and consequences. But that layered conversation is one the film and its subjects largely sidestep. Still, as a closing montage of Banksy works owned by private parties rolls out (including especially charged images he put up in Palestine), you can’t help but nod to photographer/artist Glenn E. Friedman’s analogy between private buyers of street art (who strip the art of much of its power by removing it from its original context and reducing it to a personal trophy) and big game hunters. Midway through the film he fumes, “So, here’s this beautiful, incredible animal, and you kill it just so you can own a part of it? That’s fucking foul.”
All images except the last are courtesy Banksy.co.uk. The last image is courtesy Candy Factory Films.