Art is not worth much without the mystique that dealers and critics attach to it. Fashionable street artist Banksy has provided experimental proof of this fact by reproducing, in visual art, a legendary happening by the Washington Post's Gene Weingarten and violinist Joshua Bell.
In 2007, Weingarten persuaded Bell, one of the world's most accomplished classical violinists, to play his priceless Stradivari instrument for 43 minutes in the Washington subway. Bell played, but no crowd gathered, and the soloist collected only $32.17 from passers-by.
"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off," Weingarten, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the story, quoted Bell as saying. "But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change."
Banksy set up a stall in New York's Central Park. The signs said: "Spray art. $60. This is not a photo opportunity." To a fan, the black-and-white stencils had Banksy written all over them: a man with the lower half of his face covered in a handkerchief throwing a bunch of flowers as he would a Molotov cocktail, a signature furtive rat. A yawning senior citizen in sunglasses and a white baseball cap was peddling the signed originals. No one bought anything for hours until, at 3:30 pm, a woman bought two pictures "for her children" after negotiating a 50 percent discount.
The flower-thrower, called "Love Is in the Air," went to a man from Chicago who was redecorating his apartment and "just needed something for the walls." A limited edition of the work auctioned for $249,000 at Bonhams last June. The man got it for $60. Banksy's total haul for the day: $420.
"Art cannot be incomprehensible to great masses of people just because it is very good, as artists of our day like to say," Leo Tolstoy argued in the 1897 essay "What Is Art." "It would be a better idea to suppose that great masses do not comprehend art because it is bad or is not art at all."
In other words, art is bad if people do not love it. It's a persuasive argument even to some artists, such as Joshua Bell. He and Weingarten had no idea what would happen in their experiment. There could have been a mob scene, people stopping transfixed by the sheer beauty of Bach's Chacona played on a Stradivarius. When they did not, Bell wondered if they even liked him or whether they resented his presence.
Banksy knew exactly what would happen. "I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career," the artist, who takes pains to conceal his identity, said in a recent e-mail interview with the Village Voice. "I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There's no gallery show or book or film. It's pointless. Which hopefully means something."
Banksy's stall provided a perfect illustration to Tom Wolfe's 1975 essay "The Painted Word," which dealt with the "literary" value of contemporary art: If critics recognize it as significant, the concept will be passed on to collectors and translated into high prices. If we are not told that we are faced with great art, we will not recognize it as such and therefore will not admire it. That's equally true of Banksy and Bell, Kandinsky or even the Beatles.
Or is it?
People in the subway rush or walking along a busy street are not in the mood to appreciate art. They move along in their shells, deep in their thoughts of domestic problems or work-related tasks. Many of them do not normally listen to classical music or tour art galleries.
Still, Banksy made $420 in a single day from people who had never heard of him or, in any case, would not have believed that the works they bought were genuine. Bell's $32 in 43 minutes is ridiculous for a world-renowned soloist but respectable for a busker.
Tolstoy was not wrong. Great art, which conveys a strong, honest emotion, does not go unnoticed or misunderstood. People on the street merely put a lower price on it than they would if it had been properly framed, exhibited and critiqued. That, however, has more to do with marketing than with art.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)