Last week, during the ache and anticipation of the Kavanaugh debacle, the art world had its own to-do. Sotheby’s auctioned off a painting, Girl With Balloon, by the street artist Banksy. A split second after it sold for $1.4 million, its unassuming gold frame shredded it into what some reporters would have us believe are now worthless strips of a formerly precious work of art.
Arts writers were aflutter. What would happen next? Would this void the sale? What would it do to the resale value? “Sotheby’s has not named the client whose $1.4 million purchase was destroyed,” one article informed us, perfectly illustrating the art world’s inability, or willful refusal, to see past an object to the intention behind it.
They missed the point.
The painting wasn’t destroyed. The irreplaceable pieces of contemporary art in Charles Saatchi’s collection that perished in a 2006 East London warehouse fire—those were destroyed. What happened at Sotheby’s to Girl With Balloon was that a conceptual artist transformed his own piece of art, and did so as a premeditated response to the actions of an exploitative art market.
We now know—because Banksy told us on his Instagram account—that a few years ago when he initially sold the painting he “secretly built a shredder into [the] painting in case it was ever put up for auction…” This was not a publicity stunt, as some art world insiders have suggested. It was simply the restating of a message that the artist has repeated to us over and over again and which the art world continues to ignore.
Banksy made his position clear in 2006, lamenting the trend of money-hungry gallerists and collectors who steal works of street art from the public sphere in order to personally profit from them on the secondary art market. “Graffiti art has a hard enough life as it is before you add hedge-fund managers wanting to chop it out and hang it over the fireplace,” he said. “For the sake of keeping all street art where it belongs, I’d encourage people not to buy anything by anybody, unless it was created for sale in the first place.”
It is not uncommon for well-known street artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Swoon to sell work that they have specifically created for the primary art market—which is to say work for which they will receive some or all of the proceeds—so that they can continue in their original pursuit of making street art.
Street artists put themselves and their personal safety at risk to create work, from which they do not profit, that is free to all. They do this because they have something to say and they believe in the power of art in everyday life. To chisel their work off of a building, where the artist chose to display it and where the public had unfettered access to it, in order to personally profit from it is a particularly craven act. It shows a bald-faced disdain for artists and a staggering lack of understanding about what makes a piece of art valuable beyond what can be accounted for on a balance sheet. But the art world doesn’t care about that kind of value.
In 2006, for his first large-scale exhibition, Banksy made the piece The Elephant In The Room, a live elephant painted to blend in with the wall pattern. It was a comment on the things we pay attention to, like the giant pink elephant walking around a room filled with wealthy collectors and celebrities, and the things we ignore, like the billions of people who were at that time living in poverty. And the media took the bait. All of the coverage was about the painted elephant—Was the non-toxic children’s face paint harming the elephant? Should the permit that the Los Angeles’s Animal Services Department issued for the elephant to appear in the show be rescinded?—and almost none of it was about the 1.7 billion people who had no access to clean drinking water, despite the fact that the artist had written about it in his work statement, available to anyone who attended the exhibition.
There was a second elephant in the room: the fact that shiny fancy people were about to spend millions of dollars on work that the artist had always offered for free to anyone who walked past it on the street. Banksy was showing us our greed, our capitalist desire to possess objects that are not possessable, our myopia. We don’t want to look beyond what we’re seeing. We want only the veneer.
To wit, not one article I read last week about the sale of Girl With Balloon mentioned the subject or the history of the painting, therefore missing the profound irony of its “destruction.” In the small composition, a small girl lets go (or loses hold) of a red heart-shaped balloon, watching as it floats off into the ether, her hand still outstretched. She is guileless, the visual embodiment of innocence and purity, losing heart. The painting is a scaled-down version of a large street art mural titled Balloon Girl that Banksy spray-painted onto a wall in east London in 2002. In 2014, The Sincura Group, a luxury personal concierge service whose “global contacts allow us to obtain the unobtainable,” according to its website, announced its plans to remove the mural and sell it on the secondary market for approximately £500,000. That this was the piece in the self-destructing frame was no accident.
If you are unmoved by my argument and still want to consider Girl With Balloon destroyed, it certainly wasn’t destroyed by Bansky. The auctioneer’s gavel, spurred by the winning bid, was the trip wire. If I were to reframe the event, to rewrite the statement from earlier in this essay I would say, “Sotheby’s has not named the client whose $1.4 million purchase the auction house helped to destroy.”
Don’t be fooled. The art market shredded Girl With Balloon. If it had not been auctioned off, if an anonymous bidder hadn’t been willing to pay over a million dollars for it—not a cent of which the artist would ever see—it would remain intact in its frame and none of us would be the wiser.
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