Banksy Plays the Violin


Earlier this year, I read an article about Joshua Bell, a violinist who played at a Washington D.C. subway station during the morning rush hour. Unlike most buskers, this musician was one of the most accomplished virtuosos in the world. Three nights before, Joshua Bell played in Boston’s Symphony Hall for patrons who paid over $100 a ticket. And the instrument he played? A violin from 1713, handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari, that cost Bell $3.5 million.

You would expect that one of the best musicians on the planet to garner some attention. But during his 43 minutes of playing time, only seven people stopped to listen, and he earned a total of $32.17.

This experiment, the brainchild of The Washington Post, raises all sorts of questions, including: Can we appreciate beauty in unfamiliar settings? Are we able to recognize talent without signposts? And how do we know when we are in the presence of true art? Banksy must have considered these questions last weekend, when he set up a vendor stall in New York’s Central Park.

You may be wondering, “Who is Banksy?” But like Joshua Bell in symphonic circles, Banksy, in the art world, is a household name.  We don’t know his real name, but Banksy is an English artist, who has literally taken contemporary art to the streets. Yes, he’s a graffiti artist, whose primary tools are spray-paint and unsuspecting walls. Banksy is known for painting socially conscious and politically poignant images, mostly with dark and satirical undertones. And while his art can be viewed for free in various locations around the world, his original stenciled prints have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So when Banksy set up a stall in Central Park to sell 25 pieces of original art for only $60 a piece, you would expect that at least one or two people would have gobbled up his signed works, particularly in such an art conscious city. Instead, he sold only eight pieces for a total of $240 (one woman bought two works, but she haggled the vendor down to half price).

Like Joshua Bell’s musicianship, people either did not appreciate Banksy’s art, or it was passed off as fake. Either way, these experiments force us to consider some unsettling ideas: that our opinions are not our own, that circumstances may be more important than talent, and that everyday things we take for granted, may be more beautiful and valuable than we ever considered.

P.S. When you stand on the Northeast corner of Columbus and Broadway in San Francisco, look toward the Transamerica Pyramid, and you will see this original Banksy:

Banksy photo

107 responses to “Banksy Plays the Violin

  1. I saw a story about this yesterday! Really makes you wonder… (going to look a little longer at what I pass by when I leave work today) 😉

  2. Love the Banksy horses on the Lower East Side in New York.

  3. Great blog on Banksy! Love it!

  4. Well written. And a very good point! Takes us back to the unanswerable question – what makes art, “art”?

  5. Funny thing about art: it’s subjective. Let me repeat that, because it’s gosh-darned important. Art is subjective. That means that no two people will respond in precisely the same way to the same piece of art, no matter the artist, the medium, or the time.

    Now consider this: how in the hell can anyone sanely declare one piece of art “good” and another piece of art “bad” if we all see the same things slightly differently? Subsequently, how can anyone assign a monetary value to said art? What makes this thing worthless and that thing priceless?

    I’ll tell you how. Marketing. If they can convince you your instincts and feeling are less important than whatever they have to say, they have an excellent chance of getting you to shell out thousands for something that you actually can’t stand to look at on a daily basis. Art is only an “investment” so long as the hype surrounding that artist holds out. If public opinion should sway in the other direction, you and your investment are screwed. But if you love the piece, if it moves and inspires you, it never loses value.

    Ignore critics. Go with your gut. Vote with your wallet. Hang it right where you can see it. Don’t ask for your friends’ opinion. It’s your house.

    • Uh yeah… no. Art is not completely subjective.

      If your kid scribbles something in crayon on a piece of paper, it’s not the same as what Vermeer painted and is hanging in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, sorry.

      What I can say is that art that is happening right NOW is much more difficult to evaluate, from a “where does this stack up in the history of art” vs. said Vermeer I refer to in the previous paragraph.

      Art also has movements that help provide guideposts to what’s happening in society. These movements often wind up having seminal artists and particular works that come to define them. These particular works become more important, and thus more valuable, over time because they capture a moment in art history.

      HOWEVER, I will agree with you that the prices of art and which artists get put forward as “most important” is a different matter, and based on very powerful institutional networks of museums, wealthy donors, hedge funds and market movers (these days), along with organizers of the “right” shows (the Biannales and Art Basel’s of the world…).

      And finally, what you’ve said “if you love the piece, if it moves you and inspires you it never loses value” is utter nonsense.

      People who buy original art to DECORATE their homes can buy what they wish and they should buy it because they love it. If they pay anything less than $5-10,000 (USD) for it, they shouldn’t worry about it accumulating in value because it’s pretty much a decorative object and not much more than that – unless they happen to be deeply involved in the art world, follow trends, regularly collect young artists directly from their studios before major galleries get ahold of them… and there are such people, but they are relatively rare. Those people are spending time nurturing young up and coming artists, and may wind up owning a “great name” 50 years from now.

  6. Shoes Summerfield

    in my opinion, skewed as it may be, I feel that if it isn’t on a ‘reality talent show’ on prime time television, then it isn’t talent, art, or anything the general “pop”ulation deems worthy any more. It’s a shame that our society has to be told what is tasteful and informed on what to like or dislike. Anything less would be accountability (yes, even for one’s taste in art), and we all know people no longer want to be accountable for themselves.
    (goodness, that sounds much harsher than what it was intended to be. Still, i’ll post the comment, feel free to disregard and remove if so desired.)

  7. This post is wonderful and so relevant to those of us here. The blogosphere is democratic and therefore offers no hierarchy; this makes us all a little like Banksy being passed over in Central Park, or Joshua Bell’s music being overlooked. These experiments, speak to our over-reliance upon social Frames to tell us what is of value. Without a known reference even the profoundly gifted will be overlooked by the masses. We should revolt. Open our eyes and our ears and start believing what history has already told us. The genius’ are on the street.

  8. Pingback: Banksy Plays the Violin | Von Simeon

  9. I didn’t know who Banksy was until I had to work on an article about him over the summer. Nor did I realize that Street Art has become a hugely popular market. Most of his themes are in-your-face social and political commentary. His pieces ‘Keep it Spotless’ went for $1.8M and ‘Simple Intelligence Testing’ went for $1.26M at a Sotheby’s auction and others have gone for hundreds of thousands of dollars. This past week, as part of his ‘exhibit’ in NYC, he hired a truck to drive a load of stuffed animals through the meat packing district while speakers played animal sounds. He called it ‘Sirens of the Lambs.’

  10. Who better to appreciate the power of marketing celebrity (especially in its absence) than Banksy?

    These experiments might be useful for the general public, but I think they’re great for artists as think-pieces and reminders. Kind of refresher courses in ‘why I chose to do this in the first place.’

  11. I do believe it’s the whole package that sells something… or someone’s talent. It’s like seeing a shirt in a bargain bin at a department store; we expect it to be sub par. Put the same shirt on a runway model and BAM! It’s fashion and worth thousands. Sometimes we are just sheep and we don’t even know it.

  12. It’s a really good point you have, how we value things / art / whatever according to… to what actually?

  13. I was reading about this earlier too! It’s an interesting subject to write about. Also, congratulations of being in the Freshly Pressed! 😀

  14. In one place a piece of wall was removed, to enable the sale of a Banksy artwork. Local residents are I think still trying to get it replaced.


  15. Great article. Especially liked this part:
    our opinions are not our own, that circumstances may be more important than talent, and that everyday things we take for granted, may be more beautiful and valuable than we ever considered.

  16. Pingback: Banksy Plays the Violin | Growing & Dyeing in SoCo

  17. I bet the folks that passed up purchasing his prints are kicking themselves six ways to Sunday! Banksy rocks!
    congrats on the FP!!

  18. It’s not only about the value of art. It’s also about the value of people. I recently retired from teaching at a college and now volunteer at a recycling store. Needless to say, I see a lot more rudeness in the store than I did at the college.

  19. I wish I had been in New York that day. I love Banksy’s work. I would have bought at least one of those pieces!

  20. Wow…
    Another reason why I’d like to go to New York.

  21. I remember hearing the story about the busker. Apparently a little child stopped to listen but was dragged away by his mother who was in a rush. These stories make you wonder about why we rush all the time and do not take in the beauty of every day, those little things that spark a smile. I wonder if I would of stopped???

  22. If I had seen the stall in central park I would have definitely have gotten one of his works if I had believed them to be real. Problem is I would have probably believed them to be fake. Which is a shame considering I have followed his rise out of Bristol and into the world’s spotlight.

  23. I’ve heard about both the Joshua Bell event and the Banksy vendor stall. I think I agree. I probably would have been questioning whether or not the Banksy pieces were authentic if I hadn’t heard about it first. It comes down to our expectations. We assume that the only way we’ll be able to interact with such high profile people is in the concert hall or the museum or art gallery. Seeing it out of context defies our expectations. I think that’s one of the reasons I value artists (writers, musicians, painters, etc.) who interact as much as possible with their audience on a personal level. It breaks the pattern and helps us to see artists as who they really are. People. Maybe then we’ll start to see the grand potential and value in an innocuous busker.

  24. Wow how interesting. Not only is your art striking, the story about the violinist is very thought provoking.

  25. I so would have bought all of Banksy’s work if I had seen that stall! Great post. Really makes you think! Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thanks for you your comment. I would like to think I would have bought all of those works, but maybe I would have thought they were just Banksy knock-offs and walked on. I hope whoever bought the prints are enjoying them on their walls.

  26. A good analysis of our appreciation of art by a sociological standpoint. Our appreciation of arts and many other things, shapes from what we see from our society basically as you mentioned. Nice article!

  27. Great post, really enjoyed the juxtaposition.

  28. Congratulations on Fresh Pressed!! Great post, I also made a post on Banksy as I love his work and outlook, except yours was much more eloquenty put! And to your point I think it’s still great art even if no one else notices or hears except the artist. How many artists were virtually unknown or at least not critically recognized in their own time. Add celebrity fame et al into the mix and the it gets even more confusing….love your blog btw and will be coming back for more now you are famous…!

    • Thank you for your kind words, and it certainly was a pleasant surprise to have this post Freshly Pressed.
      Best just to do art that resonates with you, and try to improve. And even if one is never “recognized”, the joy is found in working the craft. Also, you can add Vincent Van Gogh to the list of unknown artists in his time. Best, Doug

  29. Well articulated. I quite agree, context is so important as a cue for appreciation. If only we weren’t all trying to gain social capital through our own endorsement of art.

  30. I think it’s also to do with what you are doing at the time – if someone was cooking your favourite food as you were rushing for a meeting, you would not stop for it. Art galleries and concert halls exist in order to allow us to appreciate what is in them.

  31. I probably would have thought they were knock offs because I am a cynic. I love him. I like how it says, “not a photo opportunity.”
    I *Just* wrote about Banksy on my blog and his film Exit Through the Gift Shop. If you haven’t seen it, please watch it. Not only are people NOT stopping to experience art, they go to galleries just to take photos of every.single.painting.

  32. I like how Banksy essentially made a comment on the value by letting his own pieces undersell. That’s cool. I like this guy.

  33. But is it art? =)

  34. Also consider that the attention our efforts garner us may have little to do with their actual worth. How many Bells and Bansky’s are toiling in obscurity? It makes me want to look harder for the genius in the people around me.

  35. Ack! My husband and I went nuts last week when we read about Banksy in NYC. But like so many others, even if we had been there, I probably would have thought them fakes. The lesson I take from this is to try and recapture my child’s eye; if it moves me, take the time to be moved. The world has a lot to offer if we just slow down and pay attention. As hard as that can be with all the noise…

    • Thanks for your comment, Kirstie. It’s often hard to slow down, but both of these stories are good reminders to appreciate what is around us. I also like to think that I would have been one of the buyers, but I’m not so sure.

  36. Great job of tying these two stories together. I really enjoyed reading this!

  37. Wasn’t one of the themes of Banksy’s film “Exit Through the Gift Shop” that most people don’t know good from bad art? Nothing like a lonely stall in Central Park to prove that point. 🙂 His canvases have gone for as much as $100,000 – $300,000, and he priced them at $60 maybe to prove a point on the construction of value.

  38. Pingback: Thanks Steve,Creativity is dead « The Vast Nothing

  39. Love this story and thanks for the photo – great to see.

  40. This article is brilliant and thought provoking. I struggle daily, as an art student, to understand the insanity that seems to govern success in today’s art world.

  41. Great post, Doug and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! I was first introduced to Banksy’s great works when I saw the documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, which featured the works of several street/graffiti artists in action. We get so caught up in our own worlds that we can become skeptical of the art that is right before our eyes/ears.

    Best of luck with your artistic endeavours!

  42. More Banksy, less bankers

  43. Nah, what’s going on here is the principle of value by association. Because Bell was in the subway, a common place, his work was valued at $35 an hour. When he was in Boston’s Symphony Hall,it is valued at ???, well, much more.

    This is the point of what Banksy is doing, showing how the same work is valued differently settings. He is the most highly-rewarded graffiti in the world. His work is now a brand, a Banksy. But taken out of the context that we expect, he’s just another artist.

    The market values nothing about art, it values association.

  44. Reblogged this on Adventures in Multimedia and commented:
    The concept of noticing beauty in unlikely places could be a good theme for my next series of sculptures…

  45. Loved this, such a great post and it really made me think.. thank you 🙂

  46. I think you may be interested in hearing Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures this year. I’ll let you google Grayson yourself if you are not familiar with him. The Reith Lectures this year are on the topic of art in out society. Last week’s was entitled ‘Democracy has Bad Taste’ and he discusses how art is appreciated. I’ve subscribed to the podcast and look forward to tomorrow’s lecture.

  47. A fish is a genius but if you judge it on its ability to climb a tree, it will be found lacking. In both cases that you highlight in your article, the skill of that creative person had been viewed entirely out context. Each has a specific audience in which the majority of one audience would have real difficulty in appreciating the interests of the other.

  48. A great piece of work, well said.
    The question seems to me to be how we attribute “worth” to things, and that is not easy to quantify as the worth of something changes given the circumstances in which we are exposed to it. We all know that time changes our conception of a things worth, the things that we value are the things that seem to transcend time or indeed gain significance over time. A lot of the things we value have some personal link with our lives, we value the people we are close to and love for instance, and without this personal connection we find it hard to appreciate the worth of something, ( or someone) , to anyone else. ( If that makes sense.)
    Art and the arts are particularly problematic as they are not often made with materials or trappings which do not cost a lot in themselves, what is the cost of playing an instrument, singing a song or using some paint on canvas? Art and the arts get their worth in the publics eyes by the acclaim they are held in and of course this changes, i.e. compare the worth placed on a work by Van Gogh in his lifetime with its worth today. You can see that this can be taken both ways; are we talking about the cost of his work in the market place or its value? and are they the same thing ? It seems to me they are two different animals and your blog has highlighted the conundrum well. Though we all think that we should, or can, see things for what they really are, without prejudice or preconceptions, we are never able to divorce ourselves from the opinions of others or the circumstances which surround them. So what is the worth of a Banksy? Perhaps only what we think it is worth?

  49. I love Bansky! Great post. I agree art is subjective, but a line must be drawn. Not everyone is an artist.

  50. You seem to have touched a nerve there,lad. I have this week been to the Turner Prize opening in Derry, N.Ireland. Emperors new clothes is my critique because it left me cold. Good art should inspire, it may be demanding but there should be a return. Using accepted yardsticks does not work as the boundaries are constantly shifting and that’s as it should be. Unfortunately the Emperor has his sycophants who are very wealthy and therefore demand to be the custodians of taste and culture.”If I buy it,it must be art” At the Frieze Festival in London in recent years an artist made a tidy profit exhibiting a new £60m Yacht as an artwork. Clever lad made £10m on the deal.
    ps.Banksy was a ‘student’ of the frenchman Blek Le Rat

    • I don’t think it’s the rich buyers who are leading the quality of art debate, but the agents and publicists whose careers are based on promoting certain artists. Just look at the jargon they use – a whole generation of artists now use this gobbledegook as a means of trying to get noticed.

  51. Love Banksy’s work – such an interesting story and it’s true people only really appreciate things more when they become popular. Very inspiring and a great read!

  52. Thanks for sharing. These are great experiments. After seeing the setup I’m thinking many people thought they were fake. The guy who bought 4 is in for a treat.

  53. Always will be fascinated by Banksy

  54. Agree with those who say that people not noticing is mainly down to being rushed. Having said that, it is a shame not having time to perceive the world around us.

  55. I think most people who passed by the street side exhibit obviously felt this was a stand selling imitation art. Central Park isn’t his audience anyhow…he would have faired better downtown.

  56. Pingback: Banksy Plays the Violin | Piotr Skorczewski

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