This week Banksy’s latest work (or, potentially, two works) has caused a stir. The ‘Mobile Lovers’ discovered in Bristol on Monday shows a couple embracing. Instead of looking deeply into each other’s eyes they are busy staring at their phones. This is a powerful depiction of 21st century romance and love via smartphone, with all its apps and gadgets. Instead of face-to-face relationships, human communication and expression are transferred to a cyber world, a chilling image of the 21st century couple and humanity, cold blue light illuminating the dark figures.
Banksy may be sending out a warning. After all, he is well known for confronting current issues and expressing his opinion. Is Banksy asking us to consider and rethink or is he merely portraying today’s society?
This is not the most controversial part of the Mobile Lovers’ story. Within a few hours of being found the Couple was removed by Dennis Stinchcombe from Broad Plains Boys Club using a crowbar, his intention to sell it to fund his club. The club kept hold of the painting to keep it safe saying people could see it for “a small donation” when the work had been free to view just hours before. Now in a Bristol gallery, whilst the decision on its future is debated, this leads to the question of whether we can call this image art or graffiti and whether Stinchcombe had the right to remove it.
The problem with Banksy’s work is that it is not commissioned, it just appears. Whilst people argue that his work is serious art, some still consider it vandalism. This links to the ‘spying mural’ which ‘appeared’ in Cheltenham on Sunday. Located near the GCHQ it shows three men in 1950s style coats using devices to spy on the pay-phone the art work surrounds, perhaps commenting on government control or the recent phone hacking scandal. It has yet to be claimed to by Banksy. This, unlike the ‘Mobile Lovers’, is actually painted onto a building and a private building at that. Is this legitimate art or just graffiti when it would be reasonable for the building’s owner to paint over it, as no permission was given to paint it in the first place.
Is this the same for the ‘Mobile Lovers’ who although not painted directly onto a wall, were attached to public property? No matter, it surely did not give Stinchcombe the right to move this work. The mayor of Bristol rightly declares that it is not the Club’s property to sell. Whilst Stinchcombe might have seen it as a way to make money, many people will see it as a cultural addition to the city. Such art does not belong in a gallery. It is intended to be on the street, to be accessible to everyone. It is up to the community to be responsible for such works and keeping them in good condition if they wish to retain them in the community at large.
So what are we to do with such works and how do we protect them for public enjoyment? If showcased on public property owned by the council, as the Bristol ‘Mobile Lovers’ are, it seems to be up to the community and the council, not one man to decide what should be done. It was theft to remove the ‘Mobile Lovers’. It’s sad that instead of focusing on the art work itself the attention has shifted to its controversial removal by someone who saw it as a “gift” from Banksy. No such intention has been stated by the artist although it was painted in a public place and could be construed as such to be a gift for the public. Such street art will always be under threat from vandalism and thieves but to remove a public piece of art using a crowbar to sell for private gain is surely unacceptable. Put there for public viewing, it should be up to the public and council to decide what is done with the work and not one man or his club.