Sly artist strikes again

They are not amused. That's the report, at least, from four museums that became targets of an art prankster earlier this month in New York.

A shadowy British artist who calls himself Banksy walked into the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of Natural History sometime around March 13 and surreptitiously mounted his own artwork on the walls.

The four framed pieces - including two oil paintings appropriated and embellished by Banksy and an insect "specimen" - were not discovered in some cases for several days. The bogus acquisitions have now been removed, but the museums are not talking about whether further action will be taken. A spokeswoman for the Museum of Modern Art, where Banksy left a painting of a discount can of tomato soup (à la Andy Warhol), would only confirm that the work was found tucked away in an elevator lobby on March 17.

"They're dumbfounded," says Marc Vincent, associate professor of art history at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. "The museums are probably very worried" because of the security concerns this raises, he says. If someone can come in, find an uncrowded gallery, and attach a painting to the wall without guards seeing him, what would stop someone else from bringing in a more dangerous object, he asks.

Still, the museums have taken about as many security precautions as they can, Professor Vincent says. "They can't make it harder for people coming to the museum, there are already long lines."

Banksy is no stranger to controversy, having perfected his stealth methods as a graffiti artist around London and in similar pranks at the TateBritain gallery and the Natural History Museum in London. At the Tate, his painting of a quaint rural scene - marred by police crime-scene tape - fell off the wall because of weak glue, according to press reports.

This tweaking of the art establishment has precedents in the 20th century, says Vincent. "He's taking out the middle man: the curator."

Part of the modus operandi of contemporary artists has been to stand hierarchy on its head. Banksy fits into this category. "These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires," he wrote in an e-mail exchange published in a news article. "The public never has any real say in what art they see," Banksy wrote.

"He is making a serious point," says Julian Spalding, former director of Glasgow's Museums and Art Galleries. "The public have no access whatsoever to what goes on in the sacred spaces of modern art galleries."

What makes Banksy's exploits effective as attention-getters, however, is the degree to which he uses the tools of the curators against them. His paintings had ornate frames and the plaques that accompanied them mimicked those found in galleries. "He's using their language, their style of presentation," Vincent says.

Banksy also may be tweaking museumgoers. "Look at how many people rent Acoustiguides when they tour the galleries," says Vincent. "They're like sheep being led around. They want to get their money's worth out of the experience. Why do you need someone else to tell you what is important?"

By planting bogus works that escaped the attention of casual viewers (and guards), Banksy may be pointing out how little knowledge people bring to the viewing of art. "That's the trade-off in the democratization of art," Vincent says. More people have access, but fewer people bring any background to the experience.

At the same time, those who get the joke find Banksy's exploits clever and amusing - as long as his pranks don't cause harm. Among them is Mr. Spalding. If others in the museum world share his view, however, they are keeping quiet.

Banksy has returned to England, where he preserves his secret identity through intermediaries. He was quoted as saying that not getting caught was part of the "buzz" he got from such pranks. "I've wandered around a lot of art galleries thinking, 'I could have done that,' so it seemed only right that I should try," he said.

Christopher Andreae in Glasgow contributed to this report.

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