Gross Domestic Product Banksy
In October 2019 an unusual shop appeared overnight in Croydon, South London. Its windows were filled with dystopian, tongue in cheek and yet striking artworks that could only have been made by one man, Banksy.
As queues of fans formed round the block it soon became clear that this was not a shop at all but merely a showcase for the artist’s latest project. The real shop was online, with the ironic title: ‘Gross Domestic Product™… where art irritates life’, and it wasn’t quite a shop in the traditional sense. Rather than adopting a retail model of first come first served, Banksy decided to make his potential customers answer a question before they could own one of his artworks/products. This, according to the website’s text, would help keep out those who were just buying for investment, along with a polite notice which read, ‘Please refrain from registering at this time if you are a wealthy art collector.’ The (age-old) question to be answered was “Why does art matter?” and the answers were judged by comedian Adam Bloom for their humour, originality and sincerity. Once past this barrier your name would be entered into a lottery to receive the piece you had originally intended to buy.
The shop appeared a year after the famous shredding stunt at Sotheby’s London when, as the hammer came down on one of his best known paintings, Girl With Balloon, a self-destruct device was activated and the painting appeared to fall from its frame only to be shredded as the audience looked on in horror and amusement. The artist later made a video revealing how he had installed a shredding device into the work “in case it was ever put up for auction.” Gross Domestic Product seemed to be a natural consequence of this stunt, ensuring that Banksy could take ownership of primary sales of his work and enabling him to sell ‘merchandise’ for as little as £10 in a bid to make his art accessible to a wider audience.
It was also reported that GDP may have also come about as a result of a greeting card company’s attempt to trademark Banksy’s name in order to sell merchandise featuring his work. With the establishment of GDP – whose products feature the artist’s name followed by a ™ symbol – Banksy has been able to keep control of his name and sell directly to his fans, much in the way that American street artist KAWS has been operating since the opening of his Original Fake stores in 2006 and now with his website where his new toys are released.
Such initiatives to disrupt the art market and sell direct to fans, rather than to investors, are nothing new of course. In the 1970s Keith Haring shocked the art world by opening up his Pop Shops in Manhattan where kids and collectors alike could buy his work from as little as 50 cents. Similarly, when Andy Warhol began experimenting with screen printing in the 60s he opened the art world up to a whole new generation of collectors who saw his commercial and witty style of appropriation as a much needed riposte to the hierarchy of the canon which prized unique works of art above all.
The selection of products in the GDP shop ranged from the Union Jack emblazoned stab vest Stormzy wore on the pyramid stage at Glastonbury while deriding Boris Johnson in June 2019, to a handbag made out of a house brick for the kind of person who “doesn’t carry much but might need to whack someone in the face.” At the lower end of the price scale were a selection of mugs and t-shirts – including one with a fringe designed to look like the shredded Girl With Balloon painting. While many of these works were made in large editions, in what was perhaps a nod to Andy Warhol the website claimed that ‘All the products are made in an art studio, not a factory.’
Many of the products were also ‘upcycled’ from charity shop wares, such as t-shirts with well-known logos sprayed over with Banksy’s tag, or cushions that had been embroidered with the message, ‘Life’s too short to take advice from a cushion’ in what appears to be a dig at the deluge of ‘inspirational quotes’ coming at us from social media and cheap decorative desgin. All works from this series feature a dark sense of humour, revisiting themes that are ubiquitous in Banksy's street art, from round-the-clock state surveillance to the refugee crisis, from climate change to police corruption, and the futility of war.
While unorthodox in its approach to the art market, the project was well received by critics and fans alike. The Art Newspaper described Banksy’s latest stunt in a somewhat skeptical tone, stating that, “It is all dressed up as humorous. … In an art market that is so often far removed from reality, laughter probably is the best recourse.” Speaking to the BBC, their correspondent Anny Shaw said, “It’s a tongue-in-cheek poke at the market while at the same time attempting to wrestle some control of it.” Meanwhile on social media, fans were going wild for Banksy’s venture, with one person commenting, “A cushion with the inscription ‘Life’s too short to take advice from a cushion’? SOLD!” while others said, “I need Banksy’s whole new GDP shop collection.”
Banksy’s art has always been rooted in accessibility; from his earliest murals, which often took the side of the everyman vs. the establishment, to the unorthodox method of selling through the GDP shop, this is an artist who believes art is for the people. Embodying this outlook and often bearing important political messages, the selection of pieces in this collection are of a striking complexity, blurring the lines between artwork, product and merchandise and representing an essential part of the artist’s oeuvre.