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What Banksy's Prank at Sotheby's Could Mean for His Market - And Art At Large

  • Banksy at Sotheby's
October 10, 2018
A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

The stunt Banksy pulled during the latest Sotheby’s evening auction has completely taken over the art world. It became breaking news immediately, with Twitter and Banksy himself on Instagram hyping the prank. Everyone seems to be talking about it and it will likely remain the most memorable art world prank in years. And this attention seems appropriate.

Girl With Ballon, one of the most recognizable of his worksmechanically self-destructed shortly after going under the hammer for $1.4 million. This happened before the very eyes of the attendees of the auction, who in apparent disbelief were trying to make sense of what had just happened. Even though the piece was supposed to be the last lot of the auction, Sotheby’s re-opened a lot from the Teiger sale unsold earlier in the evening, after taking away the beeping, half-shredded apparatus.

This dramatic finale of the Sotheby’s Contemporary art evening sale, which happened during the climax of the busiest week in the London art market, when international collectors fly in for the Frieze art fair and its satellite events, left the art world stunned, entertained and amazed, but also puzzled.

Was Sotheby’s in on it? What was the point of this prank? What does this mean for Banksy’s market? The event has opened a range of questions which still remain unanswered.

Banksy - Girl With Balloon
Banksy – Girl With Balloon

The Destruction as a Creative Act

A long time ago, art has become a commodity to be bought and sold, as consumerism has managed to swallow, devour and spit out the very thing that criticized it. In the light of this fact, many describe Banksy’s prank as revolutionary and rebellious. Jonathan Jones from the Guardian, who is not exactly Banksy’s biggest fan, has even described it as the artist’s best work ever – even calling it “a masterpiece of radical performance.” And this isn’t the first time Banksy has mocked buyers and sellers of his work; in 2007, he published a print depicting an auction sale room much like the one at Sotheby’s with the title, I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.

This latest prank itself is the work of art, belonging to a tradition of destruction in art that is only just a hundred years old. On his Instagram account, Banksy himself captioned the video explaining the mechanism of the prank with a quote misattributed to Picasso:

The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.

Although this quote is actually by Mikhail Bakunin, Picasso did once describe painting as “a sum of destructions.” Indeed, creation and destruction have long been intertwined: the artists of Dada wanted to destroy the European culture of fine art and self-conscious sensitivity, the artists of Surrealism tried to destroy reason itself, Miro wanted to “destroy everything that exists in painting,” Jean Tinguely blew up his gigantic sculpture Homage to New York in the garden at MoMA and, more recently, Michale Landy gathered all his 7,227 belongings and publicly destroyed them. In the early 1960s, the artist Gustav Metzger coined the term auto-destructive art to describe radical artworks made by himself and others, in which destruction was part of the process of creating the work.

Playings into an economy of spectacle, Banksy made a powerful statement in a perfectly set stage. Although this clever critique of art-world commerce sets the tongues wagging, it is debatable whether it could rise above an empty gesture and actually change anything.

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Punishing the Secondary Art Market

Sotheby’s hasn’t disclosed the buyer’s identity and whether anyone will pay for the painting remains to be seen. Yet, if the bidder was buying for an investment, it would be smart to follow through. On the other hand, it is also possible that the consignor might refuse to sell or wants more money for the “new” work created by the prank.

Meanwhile, the auction house denies being in on the prank:

We had no prior knowledge of this event and were not in any way involved.

The frame itself, big, heavy and Victorian-style, reflects Banksy’s knowledge of art history and seems like the perfect kind of frame for this joke. In a video the artist posted on his Instagram, he claimed that he built a shredder into the frame for a print 12 years ago just in case the owner might sell it someday. Is he trying to punish the secondary art market and ones profiting off of his rising popularity? This might be the case.

Although Sotheby’s did ask to remove the work from the frame ahead of the sale, Pest Control, Banksy’s website and authentication service, said that the frame was integral to the work and that removing it was not an option. In these kinds of situations, which are rather common, the auction house does not interfere.

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The Future of the Work

While a dozen of these Girl with Balloon images have sold for more than $100,000 over the years, Bonhams recently sold one for $478,819. By including these kinds of lots in their evening sale, Sotheby’s aims to raise the visibility of artists and bodies of work that are gaining in value. Since the highest estimate for the work was $395,624, the last hammer price of $1.4 million came in as a surprise. The last work of Banksy’s to perform this well at auction was a collaboration with Damien Hirst.

Many have been wondering how this incident would affect the Banksy market and whether the incident would scare off potential buyers in the future especially the secondary market ones. This remains unlikely.

The logic of late capitalism which controls our time is to sublimate any potential rebellion and turn it into its very opposite. Although auto-destruction is one of the hardest acts for the commercial art world to assimilate, it has already been suggested that by destroying it, Banksy has actually skyrocketed the price of the work. Indeed, the work hasn’t been destroyed but only altered, as the shredding mechanism only consumed half of the print. This unique quality, as well as the story and publicity behind it might make this work, and the other 24 examples from the series, only more valuable. In that case, the joke would be on Banksy himself.

Featured image: Banksy’s Girl With Balloon at Sotheby’s, via Instagram.