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Wesley Pepper

Fine Artist Social Entrepreneur - I'm the piano player, composing my life's soundtrack. Mondego: If u want to put the world right, start with your self.. live your passion !!!!! `If you fail to plan, you plan to fail!!` words by My Late great Grand Father

Banksy: A Question of Art and Utility

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Fig. 1. Banksy, Christ With Shopping Bags. 2004. Screenprint on paper, 70 x 50 cm. Bonhams, London From: Bonhams, https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/20511/lot/24/ (accessed April 17, 2015).

Fig. 1. Banksy, Christ With Shopping Bags. 2004. Screenprint on paper, 70 x 50 cm. Bonhams, London From: Bonhams, https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/20511/lot/24/ (accessed April 17, 2015).

A Question of Art and Utility

The Art of Banksy

Art for art’s sake is a slogan translated from the French l’art pour l’art, which was coined in the early 19th century by the French philosopher Victor Cousin. The phrase expresses the belief held by many writers and artists, especially those associated with Aestheticism-that art needs no justification, that it need serve no political, didactic, or other end.[1] Street art can be defined as a form of l’art pour l’art. The artist is not expecting to get paid; sometimes the artist does not even sign their work. The goal of street art is simply to express oneself outside of the traditional institutions of art.[2] Banksy’s Christ With Shopping Bags 2005,  is a stenciled screen print depicting Jesus Christ with outstretched arms holding shopping bags. In Banksy’s Christ With Shopping Bags, we are confronted with the clashing ideologies of the “pure” Christian ideology and the “impure” capitalist ideology. Banksy’s Christ With Shopping Bags could be interpreted a number of ways. Banksy could be criticizing the commercialization of Christmas. Rather than focusing on the traditional Christian values of love, charity, and compassion, Christmas has become a time of consumption.[3][4] One can also interpret Christ With Shopping Bags to represent that Christ died for ones right to consume, if one does not consume, then he died for nothing. The interpretation can vary from theory to theory. In either scenario the intent of the artist does not matter. Artwork work can serve different functions in different contexts. Often Banksy leaves his work unsigned, or it exists only temporarily. Other times he presents his artwork in the Museum context.[5] Art has always had this problem, its interpretation is always left to be fetishized by the viewer. If it serves a purpose it cannot be l’art pour l’art. If it’s l’art pour l’art, it cannot be a commodity. In this way, l’art pour l’art can only exist as property defined by the superstructure’s desire for authenticity and reinforced by an exchange value, as a pure commodity.

The discourse of art is where the creative act of destruction literally takes place. Art authentically portrays capitalism in its most authentic way. In this context, capitalism is manifested by its ‘pure’ non-utilitarian purpose through the stigma of what is socially acceptable art. The intent of the artist is not important in any scenario, since art that is created for l’art pour l’art only exemplifies the perceived value of a work of art. We even go out of our way to fetishize the lives of artist, socially romanticizing the types of labor associated with commodities in which they created.[6] Literally speaking, the artist is expected to work for free.

The paradox of which the factory worker only works as hard as one needs to in order to survive[7], and the capitalist’s goal of generating surplus labor to increase profits is exemplified through the discourse of art, which festishizes the worker into creating something more, something ‘for the sake of art’.[8][9]  Art embodies a class struggle which has existed since before the conception of capitalism. The artist has lost the class struggle. The sale of art is controlled by the Bourgeoisie, and the discussion of art is controlled by theBourgeoisie. The artist is ideologically suppressed by the superstructure in nearly every way imaginable.

Capitalism must insistently rely on the creative act of destruction to function. It must continually create new orders of commodities which aim to destroy the previous structure, whether this be through war, abandonment, or economic crisis (German: Vernichtung).[10] Since capitalism relies on continual renewal, a functioning capitalist state must incessantly go to war and to destroy previous orders through innovation. Art serves as an innovation, where the “new and improved” genres of art replace previous versions of themselves. New art aims to negate previous orders of art. Banksy states in an interview that “Graffiti doesn’t always spoil buildings. In fact, it’s the only way to improve a lot of them.”[11] Art is a cultural reaction to the change function.[12] Without the invention of the camera we could not have photography, without the invention of oil paints we would not have oil painting, without ideology there would be no ideology in art. Photorealism is a reaction to abstract expressionism.[13] Street art is a reaction to the institutionalized forms of art.[14] 

The author is only as important as the actor, as the physical embodiment of the Spirit of the age (GermanZeitgeist). The Zeitgeist is the intellectual fashion or dominant school of thought that typifies and influences the culture of a particular period in time.[15][16] For example, Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both invented derivative calculus entirely separate of each other at exactly the same time.[17] Banksy’s Christ With Shopping Bags embodies the zeitgeist of today’s consumer society, while also embodying the innovation of spray paint, and ideological anti-art. This is the authentic nature of art: to express the historical significance of any given time period, to visually display ideological shifts, and to demonstrate the innovations of said era.

There is a long list of artists that created art for commercial purposes; masters and non-masters alike are recognized by the discourse as authentic representations of the era in which they lived. Raphael was notorious for the large body of paid commissions that he produced throughout his career.[18] Michelangelo was a sculptor who disliked painting, yet he painted the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel as a paid commission.[19] The master painters are the perfect example of the creation of capital. There are countless artists whom almost exclusively work within workshops utilizing the Money Commodity Money structure.[20] The capitalist purchases labor in order to convert it into a commodity, then resells the labor commodity with the intent to make profit.[21] Workshop artists hire other hands to create their artwork. In Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop. The character Mr. Brainwash, portrays the perfect example of worker exploitation in terms of a capitalist workshop.[22] Its important to note that Mr. Brainwash learned this method of exploitation from hands on experience within Banksy’s workshop.[23] The workshop artists are provided just enough to sustain them.[24] They do not own the means of production, and because of this, they must sell their own labor power.[25] The master, who may have had little to no participation in the actual creation of the work, takes full credit for the creation of said artwork, then resells it for profit.[26] 

The capitalist system has co-existed with fine art all along. Any artist who has worked in a workshop has participated in the commodity exchange of surplus labor value, a capitalist phenomenon. Commodified art is presented in gallery spaces, framed, and placed in prime real estate locations with the intent to be bought and sold. The literal and figurative frame are innovations solely created by the market for art. Through vandalism, Banksy destroys the property of others, in turn creating something new. Within the context of advertising, every wall that is defaced by a vandal can be equated to a commercial billboard in which one advertises for their services. A successful capitalist knows that billboards help generate a demand for their commodities. Property only works through recognition of what is mine and what is yours.[27] Banksy’s work is often displayed within multiple contexts of what is mine and what is yours.[28] 

There are three types of value; use value, exchange value, and labor value. ‘The utility of a thing makes it a use value.’[29] Exchange value is determined by the relationship in which an object is exchanged for another. Labor is represented as the total value of labor embodied within the commodity itself. Use value relies on a commodity’s utility, exchange value is the value a commodity is sold for at an auction house. Labor value is the amount of labor put into a commodity. Traditional commodities exist as both a use value, an exchange value, and a labor value simultaneously.[30] The use value of the creation of art can be a personal form of expression. Banksy’s graffiti could be interpreted as a form of self-therapy. The labor embodied in this type of art is valueless in terms of exchange value, since it serves a use value only to oneself. Thus the exchange value of art, much like the exchange value of going swimming, is only determined as being valuable by being recognized as valuable.[31] Society only values art in terms of the purpose its set to uphold, as a directuse value; such as those for advertisements.

This is the contradiction of the discourse, if it has a use value, an inherent purpose to society, a quantifiable worth, which can abstractly embodied temporarily in terms of money, then it cannot be l’art pour l’art.[32] In order to have any value, art has to be recognized, like all commodities, as something valuable to society itself.[33] An artist may use their personal labor to determine what they think their art is valued at, but theexchange value of art is purely a social construct, as it’s value is not determined by use value, but rather bysocial authenticity. The labor put into a work does not affect the value of the work whatsoever, but it may encourage the artist, like a good capitalist, to attempt to quantify the value of their work in terms of labor. Similarly, money exists as a way to express the value of human labor embodied within an object as transitory between the Commodity-Money-Commodity relationship, to literally weigh the value of the labor embodied within any object.[34] Thus, art that cannot be quantified through money, has no value to society whatsoever.Thus the exchange value of l’art pour l’art is determined by authenticity. Art exists to the collector through the meaning and significance embodied within the semiotic code of representation, and its authenticity. The value of art is solely determined by the social value of an individual’s perspective of said work, as a representation of an authentic kernel that delivers its message to the receiver.

Banksy’s Christ With Shopping Bags delivers an anti-consumption message in a world riddled by the travesties of capitalism. Banksy’s Christ With Shopping Bags is validated as authentic street art because it was made by Banksy. The collector purchases the art at the price at the representational form of the exchange value that the buyer perceives within said artwork. Banksy’s numbered editions have been know to receive enormous bids at auction, Family Target (Family Portrait), a limited edition stencil painting numbered 3/25 was purchased for $64,148 in 2014.[35] The labor value embodied within Family Target(Family Portrait) does not equate to such high numbers, the price of this work was determined by its authenticity and the demand for that authenticity, as a pure exchange value.  

Use value is used to define art within the capitalist context; art that exists as a commercial good is less artistic in relation to art that exists as l’art pour l’art. Objects that have a utilitarian purpose are not considered ‘high art’. A chair is not as artistic as a painting because a chair has a higher use value than a painting. Capitalism has already defined what art is, art is the labor embodied in the objectified form, the total opposite of utility. Art is anything but utility, it exists in direct contradiction to use value. Herein lies the problem, all commodities that have a labor value also have a use value,[36] but the product of labor must also be useful for others to have any value.[37] The creation of l’art pour l’art is already worthless unless it is created with the intent to be a commercial good.  The less of a purpose that something serves, the purer the art form becomes. The idea of  l’art pour l’art already negates the idea of use value, its labor value is unimportant. The way one presents art at a gallery or at a museum is only important for the market of art to ensure that the capitalists are purchasing something authentic.

Research suggests that the famous French LasCaux cave paintings served as a form of worship in an era without written language.[38] If the cave paintings become l’art pour l’art, it only became such after the discourse ‘discovered’ it. After the discovery, the caves became a commodifiable tourist attraction, in which the tourist is purchasing a semi-authentic commodity.

Banksy’s artwork exists in two separate realms, first as vandalism, then as fine art.[39] As a representation of vandalism, Banksy’s work serves no use value in relation to society, but rather as quite the opposite. Vandalism is a crime in many jurisdictions. Only as a representation within the social context of the genrestreet art does Banksy’s work become valuable whatsoever. It no longer exists to vandalize a wall, it now exists as fine art. If a restaurant or Museum were to pay for their building to be vandalized, it would exist within the context of fine art, but also as a commodity. Bristol City Museum commissioned Bansky to perform a stunt, proving that his authentic public sightings only increase the value of his work.[40] Banksy’s work transcends vandalism and becomes a commodity whose value is almost entirely determined by the demand for authentic vandalism. It is only at this point does Banksy’s artwork include a value whatsoever, for his work was literally worthless as vandalism, but now priceless as authentic street art.

True art exists in the context of an authentic reaction to the change in function.[41] What it embodies until then, is of no importance. Art intended to be a commodity, like that of Raphael’s, can be high art, while artlike Banksy’s anti-institutional l’art pour l’art can also be a commodity. Ideology is created by the production modes of society in an uneven fashion, in which ideology is implemented in order to make the workforce think that the dominant economic structure is the natural way of running an economy.[42] But capitalism is not natural, it depends on social structures such as property laws and the discourse to operate.[43] ‘Pure art’ exists as the ultimate exploitation, since it aims to serve no use value, not even one to feed the artist, or to compensate the artist for one’s labor. ‘Pure art’ only contains an exchange value, which is dictated by a domineering class of art elitists who arbitrarily decide what is deemed significant.


[1] “Art for Art’s Sake,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, January 22, 2015, <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/36541/art-for-arts-sake> (Accessed April 27, 2015).

[2]Allan Schwartzman, Street Art, (Garden City, N.Y.: Dial Press, 1985), 9

[3] Sean Lynch, “The 50 Greatest Banksy Works of All Time,” Complex, November 1, 2013, <http://www.complex.com/style/2013/11/banksy-greatest-works/paris-hilton-reworked-album-dangermouse-collabor> (Accessed April 26, 2015).

[4] “Jesus Christ with Shopping Bags by Banksy,” Stencil Revolution RSS, April 19, 2013, <http://www.stencilrevolution.com/banksy-art-prints/jesus-christ-with-shopping-bags/> (Accessed April 28, 2015).

[5]Lee Coan, “Breaking the Banksy,” Mail Online, June 13, 2008,http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1024130/Breaking-Banksy-The-interview-worlds-elusive-artist.html> (Accessed April 27, 2015).

[6] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 1776/18828.

[7] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 4891/18828.

[8] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 8952/18828.

[9] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 9750/18828.

[10] Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Trans. Samuel moore (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 2002), 226.

[11] Lee Coan, “Breaking the Banksy,” Mail Online, June 13, 2008,. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1024130/Breaking-Banksy-The-interview-worlds-elusive-artist.html> (Accessed April 27, 2015).

[12] Dean, Tim. “Art as Symptom: Žižek and the Ethics of Psychoanalytic Criticism.” Diacritics 2, no. 32 (2002): 21-41.

[13] Battock, Gregory. Preface to Photorealism. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York, 1980. 8-10.

[14]Allan Schwartzman, Street Art (Garden City, N.Y.: Dial Press, 1985), 9

[15]Glenn Alexander Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, (London: Continuum, 2010), 262

[16]Eero Saarinen, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. Eds. Eeva Pelkonen and Finland Helsinki. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 15

[17] Reyes, Mitchell (2004). “The Rhetoric in Mathematics: Newton, Leibniz, the Calculus, and the Rhetorical Force of the Infinitesimal”. Quarterly Journal of Speech 90: 159–184.

[18] Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, Trans. George Bull (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1987), 208, 230.

[19] Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, Ed. Hellmut Wohl; Trans. Alice Wohl (University Park, P.A.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 9

[20] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 2858/18828.

[21] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 2858/18828.

[22] Exit through the Gift Shop. Performed by Banksy. Paranoid Pictures Film Company Limited, 2010. Film

[23] Exit through the Gift Shop. Performed by Banksy. Paranoid Pictures Film Company Limited, 2010. Film.

[24] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 6754/18828.

[25] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 3193/18828.

[26] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 10025/18828.

[27] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 1892/18828.

[28]  Lee Coan, “Breaking the Banksy,” Mail Online, June 13, 2008, <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1024130/Breaking-Banksy-The-interview-worlds-elusive-artist.html> (Accessed April 27, 2015).

[29] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition.Location 1063/18828.

[30] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition.Location 1512/18828.

[31] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition.1336/18828.

[32] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition..  Location 1676/18828.

[33] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 1512/18828.

[34] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 1676/18828.

[35] Banksy. “Banksy FAMILY TARGET (FAMILY PORTRAIT),” exh. cat. Sotheby’s, October 18, 2014,         <http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/contemporary-art-day-auction-l14025/lot.349.html> (Accessed April 26, 2015).

[36] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 1512/18828.

[37] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital, Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 1741/18828.

[38]Mario Ruspoli, The Cave of Lascaux: A Final Photographic Record, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), 146-47

[39] Exit through the Gift Shop. Performed by Banksy. Paranoid Pictures Film Company Limited, 2010. Film.

[40] Kate Erbland, “Banksy’s 11 Most Complicated Works,” Mental Floss, October 23, 2013, <http://mentalfloss.com/article/53298/banksy’s-11-most-complicated-works> (Accessed April 10, 2015).

[41] Dean, Tim. “Art as Symptom: Žižek and the Ethics of Psychoanalytic Criticism.” Diacritics 2, no. 32 (2002): 21-41.

[42]Myers, Tony. “Key Ideas.” In Slavoj Žižek, 1st ed. (London, New York: Routledge, 2003),18-19

[43] Karl Marx, Das Kapital – Capital: Best Online Edition [Kindle Edition]: Volume 1 Book One The Process of Production of Capital. Ed. Friedrich Engels; Trans. Samuel Moore, and Edward Aveling.(Chicago: Aristeus Books, 2012), Kindle Edition. Location 13706/18828.

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