Price Tag

Did Banksy Just Shred His Reputation?

What to make of the graffiti artist’s newest controversy

Oct 10, 2018

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Every so often, the general public is asked to turn their attention to the art world. Usually this is for an outrageous auction price, a heist, a forgery, or, most likely of all, a gimmick. In that last category we have the most recent art-related topic grabbing headlines. On Friday, at a Sotheby’s auction in London, the last item on the docket shredded itself immediately after it was sold (for £1m, or about $1.4 million USD). And who was behind such a prank? Banksy, of course, the mysterious graffiti artist known for his dark humor, subversion, and irony. (You can still get an unshredded version of the work here.)

A video of the event, shared by Banksy

As soon as the news broke, the art world (and social media) responded with glee. The auctioneer is reported to have called it “a brilliant Banksy moment.” After the event, Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, said “We’ve been Banksy-ed.” The artist himself put a video of the act on his Instagram, an account which has 4.3 million followers. The video shows stuffy art world folk looking around, furrowing their brows, acting nervous. The story was made to go viral, the narrative easy enough to catch steam: Banksy once again upended the art world by making a fool of their capitalistic urges.

Girl with Heart BalloonBanksy
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But a day or two later, a more complicated story began to take shape, and it wasn’t long before the news cycle entered the “backlash” stage. Forbes wrote a piece titled “Banksy’s Self-Destructing $1.4 Million Painting Is As Puerile And Current As A Snapchat Auto-Delete.” A New Yorker article, “The Empty Gesture in Banksy’s Self-Destructing Art Work,” noted that “if the stunt was intended to mock the spectacle of art being reduced to a price tag, this might mean the joke is on Banksy. But since it was clearly also a bid for more notoriety—for an artist bent on maintaining anonymity, Banksy does not shy away from the limelight—a cynic might call this is his best art work yet.”

It’s hard not to feel cynical about the incident. Given how much attention auction houses give to works they sell (especially marquee items), it seems unlikely that they didn’t know about the shredder Banksy supposedly installed in the work’s frame. Moreover, because the work wasn’t actually destroyed—it was left half in the frame, half-shredded—it remains intact as another sort of work, one which is likely worth much more than the original auction price. Did Sotheby’s know? Did the buyer? The auction house has denied both allegations, but questions remain.

Gnark Gnark Gnark!Banksy
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In the past few days, there have been connections drawn to other works of performance art, annihilation, and “meta” commentary. One such example is neo-Dadaist Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York (1960), a sculpture made from junk that went up in flames in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art. The big difference here is that, though the work may seem perfect for social media, none such medium existed. Also noteworthy is that the work wasn’t put up for auction. These two components—virality and the attention of the art world—are what make a Banksy work, well, a Banksy.

In his Instagram post, Banksy wrote “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” a quote paraphrasing Mikhail Bakunin, but one which he misattributes to Picasso. Though the mistake is easy to look up, it isn’t hard to imagine many people taking it as fact. Perhaps in this way, Banksy is saying to look past the surface level interpretation. What there is to find has yet to be conveyed—at least in 140 characters.

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