Vandals employed by the Melbourne City Council have destroyed a Banksy rat stencil in Hosier Lane. “Council clean-up claims Banksy artwork” Thomas Hunter (The Age April 27, 2010) After the owners of the Nicholas building unsuccessfully trying to protect Banksy’s “Little Diver”, off Flinders Lane, from a freelance vandal who poured paint into the gap in the plexiglass. This time the Council destroyed a Banksy stencil themselves.
I know that many street artists, probably including Banksy, will look on this philosophically. The buffed space will be a canvas for new creations; this is good for the artist but it is not good for the public or the history of street art. Street art is not the property of the street artists – it belongs to everyone. Even if the artist intends for the art to be ephemeral there is no reason for their wishes to be carried out; the person giving the gift does not get to determine how the gift is used.
In a few hundred years time there will be tourists look at a piece of graffiti preserved under plexiglass, or its future equivalent, and read a notice that explained that this rare piece of street art was preserved due to unusual circumstances when most was removed at the time by the local authorities who viewed it as vandalism. And the tourists will shake their heads and comment: “It was the city councils who were vandals destroying this art.”
I know that this will happen because I have seen the sgraffito images of a knight on horseback in Canterbury Cathedral preserved under plexiglass. Many of the painted walls of the Cathedral were scraped clean of painted images by the authorities in previous centuries because they believed that such images were wrong. The current trend to remove graffiti carries with a similar religious fervor. In 1992 in France a local Scout group damaged two prehistoric paintings of bison in the Cave of Mayrière supérieure near the French village of Bruniquel in Tarn-et-Garonne, earning them the 1992 Ig Nobel Prize in archaeology.
What about future history? Or are we at the end of history when the past but not the present must be preserved?