Ron English, the American contemporary artist, has vowed to whitewash an artwork by Banksy that he bought on Thursday for $730,000. A move, he says, is meant to protest the market for street art. The artwork at issue: a piece, entitled, "Slave Labour," which consists of a child slumped over a sewing machine to which a string of Union Jack flags are attached. Originally painted on the side of a building in London in 2012, the artwork mysteriously went “missing” in February 2013 before being sold for over $1.1 million at a private auction in London later that year, and ultimately landing in the possession of English.
"We're tired of people stealing our stuff off the streets and reselling it,” English said of the increasingly high stakes auction market for street art. “So, I'm just going to buy everything I can get my hands on and whitewash it."
But not so fast, Ron. There is a relatively little known provision of federal law that could put a stop to this. It is called the Visual Artist’s Rights Act (“VARA”) and since its enactment in 1990, it has given certain copyright owners – such as those behind single or limited edition paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, or sculptures – “moral rights” in their works. Practically speaking, VARA enables artists to prevent the destruction of a work of art if it is of "recognized stature.” It also allows artists to control the alteration of their works.
As U.S. District Judge Frederic Block of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held in the highly-watched 5Pointz graffiti case, the rights afforded by VARA apply to street artists. As attorney/journalist Jessica Meiselman wrote in discussing VARA in connection with the 5Pointz case (which served to explicitly broaden VARA’s protections to street artists and their “temporary works”), the case “established that street art can be eligible for VARA protection if it obtains certain recognition, despite its fleeting and, sometimes illegal, nature.”
With that in mind, Banksy could step in and prevent English from whitewashing the piece and selling it for a million dollars, which is what English has said he plans to do. As such, the question becomes: will Banksy attempt to put a stop to English’s plan? It seems unlikely.
Actually enabling English to go through with it seems like just the type of stunt and resulting publicity that Banksy is accustomed to courting. It is just barely a month after the secretive British artist saw that his famous 2006 work, Girl with Balloon, was put through a shredder just moments after it had been auctioned off for a record $1.4 million in London.