Who are the most important artists in the world?
No, this isn’t a trick question. Though I wouldn’t blame you for sensing a trap and replying: “Nobody. None of them are important.” Because if poetry, in the much-quoted phrase of Auden’s, “makes nothing happen,” that must go double for art, hung in fancy galleries, traded for big money, revered but essentially outside the scrabble of human history.
Though a few artists make a real world splash. I’d nominate Banksy, the mysterious British graffiti artist turned global trickster, whose stencil wall paintings hit a sweet spot between spare beauty and pointed social commentary. A dove in a flak vest on a wall in the occupied territories. Security forces going through Dorothy Gale’s wicker basket.
His work is also a commentary on value, an essential topic in a world where a canvas can sell for $450 million. Banksy paints on buildings, basically giving his work away. Some building owners whitewash his work over, while others break out concrete saws and preserve it. There’s a fascinating documentary, “Saving Banksy” about what happens after the artist does a few street paintings in San Francisco.
When a painting of his was recently auctioned — for more than $1 million — it immediately began to self-destruct, thanks to a shredder hidden in the frame. In 2015 Banksy created “Dismaland,” a seedy mockery of Disney. One attraction involved remote control boats crowded with refugees, and one of these boats is currently being raffled off by Choose Love, a British charity aiding refugees.
There is a carnival twist: to win, you must come closer to anyone else in guessing the weight of the vessel.
I’m generally opposed to lotteries. But a 1 in 300 million chance is one thing. Estimating the weight of a fiberglass and resin boat is something else.
Besides, the money goes to help refugees, a responsibility that the United States has unconscionably shirked. I had to enter.
First, research. I went on Amazon, studied fiberglass remote control boats and what they weigh. I made my estimate, converted to grams and went to the Choose Love contest web page and entered my first guess, donating 2 British pounds — a little more than $2.50. Entering has become a daily ritual.
Part of the fun of playing a lottery is dreaming, though I found myself more worried than hopeful: what if I win? The rules say I have 10 days to “claim” the prize. What does that mean? How will I get my Banksy home?
“You wouldn’t want to Fedex that,” said Adam Fields, CEO of ARTA, an international art shipping company. “That needs to be handled by professionals.” ARTA would charge about $2,500 to pack, insure and get my Banksy to me.
And what would I do with it? Set it on the buffet next to the bowl of Italian ducks? Selling it seems crass. Then it’s just a cash lottery through the vehicle of art. Would I own the sculpture or would it own me? Isn’t coveting a Banksy proof that his message of anti-consumerism has flown past me?
Why do I want it? For the reason anybody wants an artwork: it’s beautiful — those serene, dignified refugees in the boat. It’s meaningful. Sticking the sculpture in a vault would defeat its purpose, of alerting people to the refuge disaster. The place to do that is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in a vitrine which could lay out the Dismaland story, which was genius, and point visitors toward Choose Love. I contacted the MCA: do they have a Banksy? No. Would they like to display mine? Maybe.
So that’s been my plan: win the Banksy, bring it somehow to Chicago, loan it to the MCA — a long-term loan so I can monetize the thing should professional journalism go completely belly up. I’d get a lot more pleasure from doing that, from being a tiny part of the vast History of Art, than from having a hundred grand knocked off my debts.
I thought of keeping the lottery to myself — why tip off competitors? But that’s selfish; more entries mean more money for refugee relief and, who knows? Maybe you’ll win. The politics of Banksy are complicated. But I think he’s trying to say something about making the comfortable less so, and reminding us that we don’t have to be quite so greedy all the time. The lottery ends Dec. 22.