There's a giant Banksy show in Toronto, but how good is it if Banksy himself isn't in on the joke?

Crass, cheesy and against what the artist stands for? That hasn't stopped thousands from buying tickets — but some fans won't be lining up.

Crass, cheesy and against what the artist stands for? That hasn't stopped thousands from buying tickets

The Art of Banksy exhibition, on in Toronto to July 11, features paintings, prints and sculptures by the world's most famous anonymous artist. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Not everyone gets to spot an original Banksy in the wild — not least because of a certain reality about stuff that's illicitly painted on walls. Graffiti, particularly graffiti by the world's most famous anonymous artist, doesn't last forever. A stencil could be tagged over or white washed — or chiselled off for fun or profit (most likely profit in this case). Unless catastrophe strikes your hometown — something especially primed for arch social commentary — the odds of a Banksy visit may be low. Even lower if you, say, live in Barrie. 

So straight-up curiosity is one way to account for the tens of thousands of tickets already purchased for The Art of Banksy, a travelling exhibition that opened this week in Toronto. According to the event website, more than 80 per cent of tickets are already gone; 50,000 were made available when it was announced in May.

A peek inside The Art of Banksy at 213 Sterling Road in Toronto. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The show, on to July 11, is said to have received absolutely no participation from the artist himself, but was curated by Steve Lazarides, a London-based gallery owner known as Banksy's former manager and gallerist. (According to Lazarides's website, they parted ways in 2009.) Banksy himself hasn't directly stated that he's completely hands off the production — one of the many curious conundrums of being a celebrated person of mystery, though his two-line website bio does assert that he is "NOT" represented by Lazarides or any gallery, for that matter.

Toronto marks the exhibition's North American debut, and it's already reached cities including Amsterdam, Berlin and Tel Aviv in slightly different forms since launching in Melbourne in 2016. The show bills itself as the world's largest collection of Banksy's art.

The 80 items on display — or maybe that should be 79, now that one was reported snatched (as caught on must-see video) — are paintings, prints and sculptures that originally sold at gallery shows the artist mounted with Lazarides from the early 2000s on. No stolen concrete slabs here.

Whether the experience of seeing them is much more edifying than browsing Banksy posters at your closest frame shop is another question, considering how much context matters to everything the artist does. (A balloon girl is just a balloon girl, but not if she's floating over the West Bank wall in Gaza.) So what good is a Banksy show if the artist himself (herself? themselves?) isn't actually involved?

That critique seems to have popped up everywhere the show's gone, along with a few other details that are completely at odds with the little Banksy trivia the world's generally agreed upon. And the contradictions are as absurdly obvious as, well, the sight gags in his stencils.

Exit through an actual gift shop

Where to begin? Banksy's work is famously anti-capitalist, but it'll cost you $35 to get inside the exhibition's makeshift gallery at 213 Sterling Road.

After contemplating such images as one of a line of punks queuing to drop $30 on a "Destroy Capitalism" tee, you'll exit through an actual gift shop. And then there's this bitter cherry on top: the building made headlines two years ago when artist tenants couldn't afford the rent increases, with hikes as high as 80 per cent in some cases.

CBC Toronto asked Lazarides what Banksy would think of people paying to see his art when they got a preview of the show earlier this week.

His response: "In his heart of hearts, I think he'd rather have people looking at his work rather than it being mothballed in some warehouse somewhere."

Over the years, Lazarides has commented on the "unauthorized" nature of the show several times, and what take his former colleague may or may not have on it. Banksy didn't give his blessing to the show; he's not involved. Before the Melbourne launch in 2016, in a much quoted article out of Broadsheet, the curator said he hoped the show might even "piss off" his shadowy old friend. "Hell yeah, I hope so. We've been at loggerheads for years."

Steve Lazarides, curator of The Art of Banksy. (George Whiteside)

After learning that Banksy hadn't given his OK to the show, a street artist hired to do a mural for that Melbourne event (Adnate) went rogue. In protest, he painted a new version of Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ" with a monkey-masked Banksy as Jesus and Lazarides as Judas.

In Toronto, it would seem that the thousands who've already pre-bought their tickets are taking the news with significantly less righteous indignation.

'I wouldn't give my money to that'

"Ask me if I'm buying a ticket," says Elizabeth Legge, laughing. She's an associate professor of art history at the University of Toronto, and she hails Banksy as a "genius at producing memorable images." In class, she says Banksy comes up in a few different contexts: art as political criticism, art in propaganda. She might name drop him when talking about the legacy of Dada and Surrealism and the radical art of the 20th century.

But is she going to the exhibition?

"Of course not!" she says. "Given the hope I have that Banksy hasn't authorized it, of course I wouldn't give my money to that. It's cheesy and cynical, the whole thing."

Among the usual fast facts, Banksy is believed to be a he — originally from Bristol, where he first became active in the English city's graffiti scene in the '90s. Spray-painted stencils might be his signature, but his work — usually staged on the street but also in galleries or demented theme parks of his own design — could feature sculpture or painting or a blow-up doll of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner, dropped inside a Disneyland ride.

'Sweeping It Under The Carpet' depicts a maid who cleaned the artist's room in a motel in Los Angeles. The piece is intended to represent a metaphor for the west's reluctance to tackle issues such as Aids in Africa. (Photo by Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Thematically, the work is often anti-war and anti-capitalist — generally a voice of dissent, whether the issue is art world snobbery or Brexit. As Banksy writes in his 2006 book Wall and Piece: "The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It's people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages."

They don't even do that with Renoir or Van Gogh. They don't say come and see the 200 million dollar [exhibition]!- Elizabeth Legge , associate professor of art history, University of Toronto

"Banksy's interesting because he uses images that are deceptively almost Walt Disney-like," says Legge. "Really simple images, pretty images — that are used to pack a bit of a punch."

Think of one of the stencils appearing in the exhibition — the rebel throwing a bouquet, not a Molotov cocktail. "Banksy has been a genius at producing really memorable images," she says. "They're images that are memorable because they look like a paradox."

From inside The Art of Banksy, Toronto. (David Donnelly/CBC)

But one of the biggest paradoxes about the Art of Banksy isn't quite as funny, at least not to Legge.

How's this for anti-capitalist? Beyond that entrance fee — $5 more than the AGO's record-breaking Yayoi Kusama show, for comparison — Legge brings up the way the show, which is presented by Live Nation and Starvox Entertainment, is being promoted with a pricetag: "$35 million of artwork!"

"Could anything be more apparently against the grain of what you want to associate with Banksy?" she laughs. "They don't even do that with Renoir or Van Gogh. They don't say come and see the 200 million dollar [exhibition]!"

A mural of children using an Israeli army watch tower as a swing ride, presumably painted by British street graffiti artist Banksy, is seen on a wall at main wall at the main road in Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 27, 2015. (Adel Hana/Associated Press)

"It is kind of an affront to his work, to the ostensible point of his work, but it also really bares out a lot of the points he's making, which is there is no escaping the market. You can be anonymous, you can put yourself on the side of buildings, but you cannot avoid it being turned to grist for the art market mill. There's no escape."

Isn't there, though? This is Banksy. Maybe being one of Time Magazine's most influential people (class of 2010) doesn't actually hold that much real world sway — but through whatever machinery, this is an artist who's managed to pull off a month-long "residency" on the streets of New York (2013) and the transformation of a forgotten theme park into sprawling international art exhibition (Dismaland, 2015). He's kept his secret identity on lock for decades. Shutting down Art of Banksy, should, in theory, be no more complicated than pulling off his next trick.

What could Banksy do?

According to Canada's Copyright Act, if Banksy wanted to stop the show, he'd be completely within his rights to try.

To boil down the details, if you're showing artwork by a living artist, and the work isn't there to be sold or hired, then the artist has a claim to how it's presented. Yes, the paintings and sculptures and prints and what have you belong to private collectors — but as art lawyer Aaron Milrad, counsel at Dentons Canada, explains, there's a distinction between owning the canvas on the wall and its intellectual rights. "The artist has intellectual property in the content of the physical work, and therefore has a right to prevent this work from being shown."

So, if Banksy was upset with the presentation and wanted to shut it down? Says Milrad: "He could go to the court and try to get an injunction under this section of the Copyright Act that this is being done without his permission."

Easier said than filed, though.

"Remember, we don't know who Banksy is! He's anonymous," says Milrad. "If he wants to do that, he would have to reveal who he is."

And Milrad says there's no guaranteed way out of that catch-22. "Maybe he could do so with permission of the court where they would seal the documentation so that it would not be available for public scrutiny by people like you and me. But that takes a certain amount of work and of money."

From The Art of Banksy, Toronto. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Unauthorized, unshmauthorized

That said, the idea of an exhibition being assembled without the artist's signoff, involvement or five-star rating on Yelp is hardly unusual.

Says Legge: "How would you ever know what was authorized or unauthorized by Banksy? Does it make it more exciting that you supposedly have an unauthorized exhibition that makes it seem way more like guerrilla art? There's absolutely no way of knowing what Banksy's position is on this."

"In a way it would be even more strange if it was authorized," adds Maskull Lasserre, a Canadian artist selected by Banksy to be a part of his 2015 project, Dismaland.

"The whole notion of it being 'unauthorized'...I don't know. It's like trying to get a charge out of people."

Still, without Banksy's involvement, Lasserre says there isn't much about the exhibition to tempt him inside.

There's absolutely no way of knowing what Banksy's position is on this.- Elizabeth Legge , associate professor of art history, University of Toronto

Working on Dismaland, the thing Lasserre learned about Banksy (no, not his secret identity) was how dedicated he is to a "very cohesive vision."

"I was very interested to see just how prescriptive he was in terms of how the different works and the different artists were displayed and presented and positioned. He was really hands on — in my experience, anyway," he says. "I think he's very calculated and intentional."

People ride a carousel at 'Dismaland', a theme park-styled art installation by British artist Banksy, at Weston-Super-Mare in southwest England, Britain, August 20, 2015. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

To Jerry Rugg, better known as Toronto street artist Birdo, Banksy's signature voice is everything.

"If you think about Banksy the artist — and not everyone loves him, especially other street artists or graffiti artists — but everything he's endorsed, be it Dismaland, or now his hotel along the West Bank, it's so him. It's his brand, it's his messaging, it's his voice. And I feel this is so counter. He's always trying to make a statement. He's making social commentary; he's making political statements and all of this. That's what you would want to take in if you're a fan of what Banksy does. You want it to be his voice."

'The difference between going on a safari and going to the zoo'

Would Rugg go to the show? It's a pass from him, too.

"The spirit of what his message is is on the streets, right? It's public, consumeable art."

Or, per a Banksy blog post from his 2013 New York residency: "Art's rightful place is on the cave walls of our communities where it can act as a public service, provoke debate, voice concerns, forge identities."

On any given day in Toronto, getting access to a Banksy is easy enough, and seeing them won't cost more than TTC fare. Two stencils, generally attributed to him, are still visible downtown. There's a scene featuring three figures contemplating the profundity of a blank wall; it's preserved behind Plexiglas on the back patio of an Esplanade bar. And another, of a cop holding a muzzled dog balloon, was lifted from its original location, and is now displayed in a locked case, in the bowels of the downtown PATH system.

Public art installation of a 2010 Banksy next to One York Street in Toronto. (Adrian Cheung/CBC)

To be fair, both examples are altered, to varying degrees, from how they first appeared in 2010, popping up during a press tour for his Oscar-nominated doc, Exit Through the Gift Shop.

"Banksy's the quintessential quote unquote 'street artist,'" says Rugg. "So really, if you're lucky enough, you want the chance to see his work where it belongs."

Says Lasserre: "I'm much more interested in coming across them in a kind of natural habitat. It's the difference between going on a safari and going to the zoo."

The Art of Banksy. To July 11 at 213 Sterling Rd., Toronto. www.banksyexhibit.com.

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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