In the spring of 1977, the Sex Pistols changed record labels to sign with A&M Records in a ceremony held outside Buckingham Palace. It was not the most orthodox of business transactions. The group’s previous label, EMI, had released it from its contract after a string of unsavoury episodes – not least the infamous interview (“The Filth and the Fury”), in which members of the band swore fruitily on primetime television.
These were the days when record labels were respectable parts of the cultural establishment, carefully balancing the youthful vigour of their acts with the gentle sensibilities of their constituents. The balance was tipped when EMI’s workers refused to handle the group’s splenetic single “Anarchy in the UK”. You can’t shift units if you can’t shift units.
The celebrations back at the offices of A&M, following the Buckingham Palace revels, were raucous. More unsavoury episodes unravelled before executives whose self-satisfaction was quickly turning to a sense of foreboding. Days later, Johnny Rotten became a little too aggressive with a friend of one of the label’s directors. A few more days later, A&M, too, broke its contract with the band. It destroyed most of the pressed copies of the group’s new single “God Save the Queen”. Those that were preserved have become valuable collectors’ items. The Pistols, in the meantime, were named young businessmen of that turbulent year by Investors Review.
I was reminded of those clamorous events on hearing of the forthcoming selling exhibition of works by Banksy at Sotheby’s auction house in London. Here, too, there is the flavour – much diluted by the passing of time – of culture shock. The anonymous and subversive urban artist cannot have imagined himself displayed in such august surroundings. Street art was not meant to take place in or around Bond Street.
And yet here they are, all those images that are among the most recognisable and reproduced of our time: the kissing policemen, the ladies bowling bombs, the starving child wearing a Burger King crown. Pungent images, produced quickly and wittily, celebrations of evanescence, are now corralled into an institution that is devoted to – indeed relies upon – the enduring power and attraction of high art. The show is entirely unauthorised by the artist himself. But his early friend and former dealer Steve Lazarides, who has curated it, revels in the event’s improbability.
“Of course it is a complete paradox,” he tells me on an unclear phone line from the Scottish Highlands, where he is birdwatching, miles away from any street at all. “Everyone thought it was a fad, that it would never last. And I remember the days when we couldn’t sell a signed print by Banksy for love or money.” Sotheby’s says it expects some of the 70 works on show to sell for north of £1m.
To give the exhibition a further air of danger, the auction house has allowed Lazarides to decorate its gallery by letting him loose with a paint-filled fire extinguisher. “I just asked and they said yes,” the gallerist explains. “I felt like a fox inside a chicken coop. I really don’t like whitewall galleries. I did it because I could. I was trying to capture the spirit in which that art was produced.”
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Two important points argue against the comparison of the scandals of 1977 with the show opening next week. First, Banksy is not the Sex Pistols. His tone is more acerbic than outraged; although he has serious points to make, they are made playfully and knowingly. As Lazarides says in his catalogue notes: “That is what Banksy is good at, seeing things in unexpected places that make people smile.” Whatever reaction the Sex Pistols provoked back in the day, anything as bland as a smile was not among them. The filth and the fury felt real.
Second, Sotheby’s – and indeed all the auction houses, and all the commercial branches of the art world – are not A&M Records. They have long realised that to be abreast of the contemporary art scene, along with all its ersatz shock tactics, is simply good business. Outrage sells. There has appeared, over the past couple of decades, a perfect symbiosis of interests between the business of art and the daring of artists. There is no friction between them.
The ability of cultural institutions to embrace any kind of statement or movement that criticises the society from which they come has been one of the dominant phenomena of 21st-century culture. The positive side of this is that the artist is getting his or her message heard. Adversity is fashionable, cultural critique collectable. The negative view is that the impact of such art is reduced in direct proportion to its mass acceptance. Assimilation leads to ultimate insignificance.
We should give the last word to Banksy. One of the prints on sale at Sotheby’s is “Morons”: an illustration of an auction in which the crowd is bidding for a piece of work that simply bears the words: “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit”. The work was originally produced in response to the unexpectedly successful sale of some works by Banksy at a previous sale at Sotheby’s. Disentangle that little bundle of ironies, and you get the gist of where the art world likes to graze right now: far from the filth, far from the fury, and far from the street.
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For more on the Banksy sale, see the Art Market column