On October 6th, 2018, a rare piece of art history unfolded at an auction in front of a crowd of horrified, amused, and confused onlookers. The auction was held at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London, where Banksy’s famous ‘Girl With Balloon’ piece was auctioned at a whopping 1.4 million dollars. In a strange twist that no one expected, once the gavel swung down, the painting began to shred itself. Banksy, being the clever troll that he is, posted a picture on Instagram of the shredded piece that stated “going… going… gone”. Classic Banksy style, always one step ahead and with a statement to make. A few hours later, Banksy also posted a video on Instagram with the caption “‘The urge to destroy is also a creative urge’ —Picasso.” There is a lot to unpack here about the statement that Banksy is sending including the juxtaposition between the concept of street art and profit, the benefit of controversy, and the power struggle between artist ownership and consumerism. Another burning question remains… is the piece worth more now?
Street art is an edgy, mysterious, and often frowned upon medium in society. Another defining quality of street art is that it is extremely hard to control and obtain. It is a medium made by and for the people with inescapable and in-your-face messages. Banksy, as an artist, seems to exude all of these qualities and even take them a step further. To the dismay of art collectors and hoity toities everywhere, Banksy is extremely resistant to his work being sold and consumed like traditional art pieces. This is especially apparent in the latest incident with “Girl With Balloon”. Banksy is very obviously laughing in the faces of the upper echelon that believe they can control him and his art. This is supported by his deliberate nature in destroying the piece and commenting that destruction is also a form of creation. Quoting Picasso, one of the most recognizable and famous modern artists, is telling in and of itself. The original description of the piece by Sotheby’s states “Bordered by an ornate gilded frame, an integral element of the artwork chosen by Banksy himself, the present work is a kitschy emblem of pathos. Instantly gettable, Banksy’s graffiti image is a perfect encapsulation of human emotion for the short-attention span of our social media age: it seditiously pokes fun at high-minded art world savoir faire and in doing so appeals to many, for whom it represents a contemporary expression of sanctity, a bright and vivid symbol of hope everlasting. Ultimately, however, Girl with Balloon is the poster-child of Banksy’s art: whether you are for or against him, this image utterly encapsulates the immediacy and controversy surrounding the artist’s mission.” Perhaps the most relevant and important part of this description is the “immediacy and controversy surrounding the artist’s mission”, which is partially the mission of all street artists. In that moment, Banksy was making a very immediate and strong statement that he would and could not be owned.
Another element that makes this situation unique, is the inherent danger and controversial element of street art. Despite Banksy’s years of success and influence, his identity remains a mystery. Art that creates controversy, and a conversation within that controversy, is going to become more desirable. Everyone likes a good prank and a bit of juicy drama, which is how Banksy is able to capitalize on the controversy regarding the destruction of “Girl With Balloon”. Shrouded in mystery, it generates many more questions than answers. Who was in on it? When was the shredder built into the frame exactly? What would happen if the buyer refused to go through with the purchase? In a new development, the buyer has decided to go through with the deal. According to BuzzFeed News, the buyer stated that, “’When the hammer came down last week and the work was shredded, I was at first shocked,’ the buyer said in a statement through Sotheby’s, ‘but gradually I began to realize that I would end up with my own piece of art history.’” Turning an auction into a front page story, is a stunt that only adds to the elusive and fascinating quality behind the piece. Now, the piece has a story of transformation, drama, and controversy attached to it. In fact, most people believe that the piece is actually worth more now. Reported from Newsweek, “Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art, Europe, said, ‘Banksy didn’t destroy an artwork in the auction, he created one. Following his surprise intervention on the night, we are pleased to confirm the sale of the artist’s newly titled Love Is in the Bin, the first artwork in history to have been created live during an auction.’” Well done, Banksy.
The last important element of this saga is the struggle between artist’s intention and modern day consumerism. The artist creates the work, but they’re not always in control of what happens to their work once it becomes public. This is an unsettling reality for many artists, including myself. Banksy giving the giant middle finger to the concept of being owned and controlled, is an idea that all true artists should celebrate. It is one of the many core elements that separates artists who create for art’s sake or for profit. It has been a repeated theme in modern art for some time, why would someone pay for a picture of a Campbell’s soup can or a splatter art painting that anyone could do? The answer is the artist’s intention and exploration of what art should be that makes it valuable to art history.
Banksy’s statement of shredding his own art piece the second it sold, is more than just a gimmick or stunt. It relates back to many themes that have been prevalent throughout art history regarding what constitutes as art. Notoriety and controversy have always contributed to the value of pieces and will continue to do so. In a way, “destroying” the art piece was a metamorphosis of the previous piece into an entirely new one. It speaks to Banksy’s ownership and intention as an artist; they might be able to buy it, but they don’t really own it. It will always be Banksy’s to create, destroy, and everything in between.