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Banksy's shredded painting stunt was viral performance art. But who was really trolling who?

Art experts have noted that Banksy's piece is worth much more shredded than it was intact. There's more to this story than meets the eye.
Image: Love is in the Air
Sotheby's employees pose with the newly completed work by artist Banksy entitled "Love is in the Bin," a work that was created when the painting "Girl with Balloon" was shredded by the artist.Ben Stansall / AFP - Getty Images

On Oct. 5, as employees and art collectors looked on, one of street artist Banksy’s most famous works shredded itself at Sotheby’s auction house. The artwork, a 2006 spray-painted stencil titled “Girl With Balloon” — and voted the UK's best-loved artwork in 2017 — was sold for $1.4 million. The purchaser, who for now remains anonymous, has said they will keep the artwork. This makes sense, since several art dealers and critics have noted that the piece is now worth much more after Banksy’s artistic intervention than it was intact.

“It appears we just got Banksy-ed,” Alex Branczik, senior director and head of contemporary art for Sotheby’s, said in a statement after the event. “We have not experienced this situation in the past where a painting spontaneously shredded, upon achieving a record for the artist. We are busily figuring out what this means in an auction context.”

Initially, the reception was swift and generally positive. In London, the typically conservative critic Jonathan Jones declared that the stunt “proved [Banksy] is the artist who matters most right now” because, according to Jones, “Art is being choked to death by money; the only rebellion left is for artists to bite the hands that feed them.” The LA Times sought out other artists to attest to Banksy’s genius and audacity. Shepard Fairey, the popular LA-based street artist best known for his Barack Obama “Hope” posters said, “I think Banksy’s idea here is that an appreciation for the concept is more important than an appreciation of the object.” (Except that the object in this example was not actually destroyed.) The BBC reports that John Brandler, director of Brandler Art Galleries, described Banksy as "the ultimate publicity artist" and said that with his brilliant stunt "made Damien Hirst look like an amateur.”

In other words, the action garnered effusive praise from the art scene’s leading players. But is Banksy really a wise trickster, beating the luxury art market at its own game? Or, is it possible that we are all so thirsty for a hero who will let a little air out of the massive art bubble that is the contemporary art secondary market that we may have overshot the mark a bit? A closer look at what actually occurred at the auction of “Girl with Balloon” reveals that though we may want artists like Banksy to be white knights, such "knights" sometimes take the money and run.

First of all, let’s examine the circumstances surrounding the shredding. Banksy posted a video to his Instagram account showing a hooded figure fitting a shredder into the frame of a painting, with text appearing on the screen reading: “In case it was ever put up for auction.” Banksy also posted a photo of a key moment, showing the faces of stunned auction-goers. But it’s more than a little odd that Sotheby’s let in a strangely weighty frame from the artist, without taking a closer look inside it.

Art History News argues that it is also highly unlikely to be a coincidence that the painting happened to be the very last item sold in a modern art auction filled with famous names, or that it was “atypically hung on a side wall next to a row of stunned (but photogenic) auction-house employees, rather than up front and alone on an easel or turntable.” Then there is the implausible suggestion that Banksy installed the shredder in 2006, when the piece was made, and was able to wait 12 years to shred the artwork without anyone discovering the device.

Both the seller and buyer were anonymous, so further investigation at this time is impossible. But with the initial giddiness over, evidence suggests that Banksy did not act alone. The truth is, it's far more likely that Banksy did not play a trick on the market, or on the auction house — but that he played a trick with them.

Again, the staging of this production feels like a win for the artist, buyer and the auction house — and for performance art. This conclusion has led Artnet to ask whether Banksy has helped to tilt the art market toward that particular genre; it is the performance of destruction that made the art world go dizzy with delight, after all.

The staging of this production feels like a win for the artist, buyer and auction house — and for performance art.

But this is about more than spectacle. As Offer Waterman, a British art dealer, told the New York Times, the event is likely going to make all of Banksy’s artwork even more valuable in the future. This fact undermines critics who claim Banksy remains as ironic and anti-capitalist as ever. If you want an art spectacle that is truly anti-capitalist, I suggest you look at the K Foundation burning a million pounds sterling in the desert. That work did not appreciate in value after it was destroyed; the money was gone for good. Or, if you’re looking for a truly personal performance of loss, look at Michael Landy’s “Breakdown” piece, in which he put every single thing he owned through a wood chipper. Landy had to start over from scratch when that work was done.

On an Instagram video he posted showing the shredding, Banksy quotes Picasso as saying: “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” But Picasso didn’t say that, the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakunin did. In short, it seems that at nearly every turn we’ve been hoodwinked — by a deft sleight of hand. Indeed, this trickery can be observed in the original artwork itself. Though gusts seem to blow past the girl, carrying the red balloon away, it isn’t actually fleeing her; it’s coming back toward her outstretched hand.