Film Review: Saving Banksy

Documentary about an art collector's rescue of a famous piece of graffiti art, and his efforts to give it to a museum, examines issues of art and commerce. Problematically, the collector is also one of the executive producers, so bias may be an issue.
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It's "Well, duh" to say graffiti has ascended to high art, though less "Well, duh" to say there's a backlash by many graffiti artists and art critics, who say that like Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas, graffiti is temporary and that its destruction by being painted or graffitied over is part of the artistic process. Other graffiti artists and art critics say “Horse***t.” Stemming from both those positions is an overlapping question: What rights to the work, if any, belong to the artist who is painting, generally without permission, on someone else's property?

The filmmakers behind Saving Banksy (as this documentary is known on its website and official materials, though stylized onscreen as $aving Banksy) say that this question arose during production of what began as a different story, one about the reclusive-yet-famous graffiti artist known pseudonymously as Banksy and his trip to San Francisco in April 2010 to surreptitiously produce work on walls around the city. For those few who may be unfamiliar, Banksy is essentially an editorial cartoonist, doing stencil art with biting juxtapositions and unusual circumstances that tell a story: A rat with a paint bucket and roller looks around squinty-eyed after writing, "Because I'm worthless." Two male London beat cops kiss. With the "ing" shadowed out in "Parking," a little girl rides a swing suspended from the letter A. An African-American boy with a paint bucket and a brush stands next to the words "This'll look nice when its [sic] framed." And perhaps most cheekily, returning to a favored animal motif, a rat with a camera winks at you. There's an instantly recognizable, personal sensibility.

What the filmmakers don't reveal, problematically, until the closing credits is that its central subject—art collector Brian Greif, who idealistically rescued a famous Banksy work and is trying in vain to donate it to a museum—is one of the executive producers. Prosaically, this explains all the inside access and remarkably coincidental timing of a phone call caught on camera. Yet it also raises questions about authenticity and whether the documentary paints a one-sided picture. The film states, for instance, that the total cost of removing and restoring the work was more than $40,000—out of Greif's own pocket, it is heavily implied. Yet the film doesn't say a word about the Kickstarter campaign by his group, Save the Banksy, which raised $10,000. This isn't to take anything away from Greif, who has turned down offers of hundreds of thousands for the work and loans it out for free public exhibitions. But his unmentioned involvement makes the documentary's objectivity suspect.

Authenticity, as it happens, is the odd rationale given by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for turning down the donation of "Haight Street Rat," one of Banksy's most famous works. The institution wanted Banksy, whose real identify is known only to a handful of people, to personally authenticate it through his organization, Pest Control, which essentially means he's confessing to vandalism. That reasoning rings false in any case, since ample documentation shows the work at its original location—including at Banksy's own website—and this very documentary shows a contractor and crew as they carefully, appreciatively, take it down literally nail by nail. SFMOMA curator John Zarobell says in the film that if an artist means for a work to be street art, "perhaps the artist doesn't want to see it in a museum." He doesn't say that was Banksy's declaration, however. Two of the many graffiti artists interviewed here, Ben Eine and Kelly Graval a.k.a. Risk, suggest that perhaps graffiti is so new to the art world that the old guard doesn't know good from bad. Yet that also seems like horse-metaphor-used-earlier, since there have long been college classes, learned books and countless exhibitions on graffiti art.

The villain of the story is controversial dealer Stephan Keszler, who makes big-money deals with property owners to remove Banksy works and then sells the pieces at auction. He offers to help Greif get "Haight Street Rat" into a museum, starting with a high-profile showing at the 2012 Art Miami fair. But then Keszler starts pressuring Greif to sell it to him, offering as much as $500,000 and sending Greif a snippy e-mail upon being turned down. Yet, once more, because Greif is one of the film's executive producers, it's fair to ask if Keszler's depiction is slanted. Not that the filmmakers don't give the dealer ample time to speak. Keszler says he's an avid fan of Banksy's, and that the artist's public condemnation of his works being sold is strategic self-promotion.

And even some of the artists interviewed say the destruction of Banksy's art would be tragic. Jasmin Siddiqui a.k.a. Hera, says simply, "If you can save art, do it." But ambivalently, in a 2009 magazine interview, she had bemoaned that she and her art partner "watch our beloved babies get downgraded to objects of speculation. We watch how they get passed around from one art collector to the other for all the wrong reasons. If our sole motivation was making money, we wouldn't care… But we do care and it does hurt. We pour our hearts into these paintings. Therefore we want them to go to good homes when they leave us."

That's a good argument for museum display—though we learn here that three more were offered the rat after SFMOMA and all turned it down for lack of an authentication letter from Banksy. Given the worldwide print and TV press that the removal and restoration of "Haight Street Rat" received, that seems astonishing. Whoever thought museums would align with Donald Trump's misguided claim of "the lying press"?

Click here for cast and crew information.