“Would you like to add anything to your experience?” asks a woman at the kiosk as I enter the exhibit. It’s $20 for a program, $8 for a recorded guide of the exhibit, and $25 for both — quite the steal. I bought the combo.
A set of escalators leads into a dark hallway. The humdrum outside quiets to a soft chatter and the sound of alternative rock music. The dark walls are lined with recolorations of well-known pieces, altered images of various celebrities, and simple quotations — all the work of one artist: Banksy.
Set in the center of Harvard Square, in one of the Harvard Coop buildings, the Art of Banksy showcases over 100 authentic pieces by the world-renowned street artist from Bristol, England. The exhibit itself is not organized or authorized by Banksy, but by a collection of private owners of Banksy’s art. The Art of Banksy Boston opened on Feb. 17 and is set to remain until May.
Tickets come at a variety of prices, spiking as the date comes closer, with general admission starting as high as $70 and climbing up to $110 for the so-called “VIP flex” ticket – the website’s proclaimed “best experience” that offers access to a VIP lounge, a limited edition poster, and a VIP souvenir laminate.
An anonymous street artist from Bristol and a product of its vibrant 1990s underground scene, Banksy creates art with anti-authoritarian and anti-consumerist messages, often using graffiti as his medium. His street art pieces tend to target public places owned by wealthy or powerful individuals and groups — using corporate and government buildings as his canvas. Many of his more attributable quotes touch on anti-capitalist themes facetiously and sarcastically: “Sometimes I feel so sick at the state of the world, I can't even finish my second apple pie.” Intended to make people uncomfortable and make them question the establishments they take for granted, his art is uncensored and raw.
In contrast, the Art of Banksy Boston is monotonous. It lacks all the vibrancy which makes Banksy’s work so striking in the first place. In the exhibit, Banksy’s art itself maintains its color and fervent, almost violent, qualities, but the ambience is dulled and distant from their original context: the street.
Room after room, the presentation of Banksy’s work never dares to make the viewer uncomfortable. The lack of context or description for the pieces requires that his work do all of the artistic heavy lifting. The $8 recorded guide, voiced by one of the many private collectors who contributed to the exhibit, similarly leaves much to be desired; although the narration offers insight into Banksy’s work and his critique of the existing art establishment, it rarely touches on his defiance against consumerism and capitalism.
Considering an enthused exhibit-goer could spend upwards of $140 for the full experience — and the fact that it is being shown in Harvard Square — the question of who the exhibit’s intended audience actually is comes to mind.
Among attendees, reception varies. One particularly excited viewer tells me how these pieces would not be open to the public without the exhibit and says that we’re lucky to see them at all. Others are not so easily convinced. A couple who did not give their names says that the exhibit is not worth it. They call it a “money grab.”
Just before the exit, the exhibit offers a merch shop. You can buy $25 Art of Banksy baseball caps, $10 Art of Banksy magnets, and $20 Art of Banksy playing cards. Above all this, a Banksy quote is branded onto the wall: “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.”
You know, maybe I will treat myself to an $80 Art of Banksy umbrella.
— Magazine writer William S. Hahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.