Although it doesn’t end the debate about whether street art/graffiti art/anonymous art is a fancy term for vandalism, the documentary Saving Banksy lays out the captivating story of a handful of pieces by the most famous street artist, Banksy, that were literally cut out from the walls on which they were painted on and sold at auctions for hundreds of thousands of dollars without a the permission of the artist or any of the profits going to Banksy.
The focus of the film is Brian Greif, a street-art enthusiast, who managed to negotiate with a San Francisco building owner the removal of an iconic Banksy rat image from the side of her home in 2010, shortly after the artist did a series of pieces around the city, most of which were either painted over or otherwise defaced. Greif’s intent was the give the rat painting to a local museum, all of which seemed hesitant because the artist wasn’t involved in the transaction, and apparently the jury is still out on whether street art belongs in a museum at all. Even after Banksy (through official representatives) gives the intended museum his stamp of approval, they won’t take it. Meanwhile, offers from private collector come pouring in leading Greif to conclude that the painting is worth hundreds of thousands, but he still can’t give it away.
Saving Banksy gives us a peek into the rather shady world of dealers who trade in works they aren’t officially authorized to sell, and while these shifty characters have all the excuses in the books concerning why what they do is legal and above board, they still tend to operate clandestinely, placing not-for-sale works on display at organized art showcases, but still quietly taking bids on the side. It’s fairly easy to determine whose side of these debates former first-time feature director (and veteran cinematographer) Colin M. Day lands on, so those looking for an unbiased opinion on the value and place of street art in the culture should look elsewhere. But his slant doesn’t make the film any less interesting and informative.
Particularly engrossing is a lengthy interview with artist Ben Eine (a friend of Bansky and one of the few people who knows his true identity and what he looks like), who seems to have an honest and level-headed feelings about the place of street art in the art world and culture in general, with added insight into Banksy’s thought process and mission statement regarding his/her own public work, and whether it should be preserved or commercialized at all. Saving Banksy is a rare and impressive look at both the creative process and the way money tends to ruin and distort it.
Saving Banksy opens tonight for a week long run at the Siskel Film Center.