October 5th, 2018. At a Sotheby’s auction in London, seconds after the gavel dropped, the painting Girl with Balloon by Banksy started shredding itself. At first shocked and then confused, the public reacted by cautiously taking their phone out and starting to film the odd event, while the majority continued to look puzzled at the center of the room.
The audience was unknowingly staring at the making of what later turned out to be Love is in the Bin, with some 60% of the canvas shredded, and the remaining surface intact. Leaving buzz and rumors aside, and focusing on Banksy’s declarations on the subject, we discover that according to the plan, the hidden mechanism in the frame intended to activate in the event of a sale at an auction should have destroyed the painting completely, allowing long, thin slices candidly fall on the floor.
One year and some weeks after, at Art Basel Miami, a hungry David Datuna ripped Maurizio Cattelan’s banana, pardon, Comedian off the wall and rapidly ate it in front of an amused and smartphone-equipped crowd. Here, the declarations of the (apparently not involved) artist were of somewhat haughty indifference. On his side, Mr. Datuna continued with his provocation even after, stating that he was “just hungry” and that the notorious banana “tasted like 120.000 others” (making a not-so-subtle reference to the price paid for it).
The two apparently not related episodes present some common features. In both cases, the artworks have been seriously impaired. While for what concerns the first event occurred, we can clearly talk about self-destruction, the ingestion-digestion involving the banana is instead an episode of hetero-destruction: a third person, note: also an artist, intervened on Cattelan’s artwork.
In both cases, there was an interference with the normal carrying out of a sale contract. Both Love is in the Bin and Comedian had already been sold in the moment of the intervention. While we cannot be fully sure that causing a burden was the artists’ intention, it cannot be an accident either. When a sale bargain successfully comes to an end, there is only one passage left: in some way, the purchaser has to come in possession of their purchase. If something happens in between, there are potential conflicts of fault and responsibilities directed to answering one, essential, juridical question: who owes what to whom, and on which ground?
But this is Court’s business, and surprisingly in neither of these cases did somebody invoke judicial help - as far as we know. As everything smoothly solved by itself, and no quarrel originated, there was no need to resort to the judiciary or to arbitration. While it is only fair that artists do not and should not care about these technical consequences, what happened is really classifiable as a serious interference in the course of an auctioning.
But let us return to the core of facts, the destruction of artworks after they had just been sold, and give them dimension.
Banksy’s artwork’s self-destruction is such a brutal act. The artwork’s own frame shredded the canvas that it usually protects. To me, it was like a refusal to come to terms with the buyer that is perceived as enemy. The only possible, yet extreme solution is to escape the malaise and its causes by quitting the scene in front of buyers, sellers and symbolically, the entire art market world.
In the other episode, the sold object was eaten. Even if surely more goliardic, it still has a strong symbolic meaning. The fact of eating the banana left its empty peel. The yellow waste as well as the fruit’s absence eloquently took the place of the preceding chef d’oeuvre.
As already mentioned, the timing chosen for the destruction cannot be random, and is instead rather crucial. It was just after the sale, just after thousands of dollars had been paid. We do not know the exact motives of these destroyers’ acts, but if we draw easy hypotheses, they could be interpreted as an act of protest, or of mockery to say the least, against the art market. Artists were not only using art to mock the market, as parody could do as well; they were actually trying to stand in the way of commercial transitions. Had they succeeded, they would have impeded their normal functioning and created a sort of seditious “precedent” that would have introduced incertitude in the very structure of art auctions.
Art historian and critic Ullrich Wolfgang wrote in his 2010 essay Die Kunst der Preise. Wie der Markt die Kunst macht (Art of Pricing. How Market makes Art), that the price paid for artworks functions sometimes as worth postulate and becomes constitutive for the perceived quality of art. This de facto substitutes artistic self-description and self-evaluation, which are both crucial for the system’s autonomy. As the sole trade good in this sort of transitions, the only way art had to mutiny against its powerful despot was to annihilate (from “nihil”, nothing: to reduce to nothing), to devalue itself to the point of zero and leave the bargainers empty-handed. In fact, in two different occasions the destruction of an artwork was involved. Sadly, both ended up being nothing more than good tries to show the art business that artists still had the command.
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The artists did not succeed because as a matter of fact, the reactions of the art market exponents proved that the feared loss of autonomy is real. The artistic actions intended to remain art-internal, even if with a broader echo and meaning. They should have been the system’s own operations on itself, at the sole mercy of artistic interpretation and re-elaboration into its own schemes.
This didn't turn out to be the case, as the intended effect of the operations was promptly absorbed by the market, which made it into a narrative of success, rather than of loss of earnings and of failure. In both cases, instead of taking its lumps and raising the white flag, the art market produced its own meaning by autonomously interpreting the happenings.
Days after the shredding, Sotheby’s released a statement that proudly described what happened as "the first artwork in history to have been created live during an auction", managing to, according to point-blank speculations, raise the price of the artwork once again. Destruction apparently became creation to the eyes of Sotheby’s, of the markets and consecutively, of the whole world.
In the case of the banana ingestion, the sellers swiftly invoked the authenticity certificate and declared that the work of art had not been actually destroyed, as the piece of paper allegedly permitted the substitution of the banana with another, equal fruit. As if the artwork could be reduced to these technical aspects, normally meant to regulate the monetary sides of a trade. Everyone who observed what happened must have been wrong, then: no artwork had been destroyed, it was just the premature substitution of the materials, a mere technical operation.
To conclude, it seems that the free market freely appropriated itself of the authority to interpret artistic operations. At the same time, it avoided law’s conflict managing stance, as it smoothly dribbled potential clashes between buyers, sellers and artists creating a ready-made solution exactly in what could have become the eye of a hurricane.
Because let us briefly imagine another, possible scenario: the art market declares the artworks inexorably ruined, meaning that the artists truly managed doing what they wanted. What would have been the consequences? Just to mention one, a very unhappy, and possibly angry, buyer.
When Cattelan answered to the journalists that his artwork was not destroyed, simply because art resides in the idea, he was probably right. But in a dystopian future, in order to answer journalists’ questions, he would have to consult gallerists first, and see if they agree.
Written by Giulia Walter.
Featured image: Domenico Barra — Sliced Banana — After Cattelan & Banksy, 2019.