Commenting on the sale of Banksy’s Devolved Parliament for £9.9million at Sotheby’s last month, celebrated curator Francesco Bonami hit out at the seemingly ‘populist’ success of artists such as KAWS and Banksy, calling them “the nothings that threaten everything.”

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Banksy’s Devolved Parliament

Published in the Italian newspaper La Reppublica, his polemic accused the art world of selling out: “If Faust sold his soul in exchange for wisdom, the art world, more prosaically, sold both its soul and its wisdom for profit.”. The article also acknowledged that social networks had as much a part to play in the result as the usual trump cards of exhibition and publication history. 

This criticism is nothing new; many writers and commenters have been lamenting the rise of artists such as Banksy and Kaws for years, dismissing their work as ‘vandalism’ or, as one critic put it in the case of KAWS, ‘sheer conceptual bankruptcy’. And while we have grown used to criticism of so-called ‘populist’ artists it is significant that the ancien regime appears to be very shaken up indeed over recent trends in the market. 

Interestingly, while the supposed tastemakers might be rejecting this new wave of street artists from the closely guarded canon, auction houses are wholeheartedly embracing this opening up of the market, no doubt encouraged by falling sales in other categories and the popularity of figures such as KAWS, Yoshitoma Nara and Mr Brainwash, among Asian collectors who now make up an important part of the market and who are contributing massively to recent shifts in taste. In an uncharacteristically tongue in cheek move, Christie’s even named one of its online sales after one of Banksy’s artworks, ‘I can’t believe you morons actually buy this sh*t.’ And when the Bristolian street artist engineered a stunt which involved shredding one of his paintings at the moment it sold for £1.04 million, rather than apologising or responding with anger, Sotheby’s gleefully commented, “It appears we just got Banksy-ed”, no doubt in eager anticipation of the headlines that would follow. 

While some might find it hard to believe that KAWS’ work is considered art and not cartoon or illustration, others have praised artists like him for continuing in the spirit that street art was born from, creating art for the masses rather than an elite few. It could be said that artists like KAWS and Banksy who began their career in the street or on the subway are echoing such luminaries as Keith Haring and Basquiat before them, using the urban environment to engage with the everyman who do not always feel welcome in the white cube of the gallery space. 

And now, with the rise of instagram these art works are more accessible than ever. KAWS’ Holiday series, which involved placing monumental inflatable versions of his famous Companion character in prominent sites across the Asian continent, was enjoyed by his fans worldwide thanks to the instant sharing of photographs which racked up millions of views and likes on the platform that has proved itself to be one of the most valuable marketing tools in a dealer’s arsenal. 

 

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KAWS Companion 

And while some accuse artists such as KAWS and Banksy of selling out by producing limited edition prints, vinyl toys and merchandise of their work to sell to the masses, this is also nothing new. As with Keith Haring’s Pop Shops – in which you could buy one of his badges for as little as 50 cents – or Andy Warhol’s prolific output of screen prints in the 60s, 70s and 80s, these artists are merely capitalising on the possibilities of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction and bringing their work to a larger audience as a result. 

While once the art of a culture was held by a handful of patrons in their palaces and later by the government in museums, now people can turn to the streets of their city, or their screens, to stay up to date with the movements of the art world. So while some believe these artists to be ‘threatening everything’ perhaps we should look at how they are opening up the art world and encouraging young people and those traditionally excluded from it to make their own path.

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