Many people think of Banksy as a shadow whose art permeates walls with marks they can’t ignore. But that’s the idealistic Banksy, the fairytale Banksy — the Banksy that Sotheby’s, a London art auction house, sold for $1.4 million.
On Oct. 6, Banksy pulled an elaborate prank when his piece, “Girl with Balloon,” spontaneously self-destructed after the auction hammer dropped.
Shredding “Girl With Balloon” was more than an act of defiance; it was a message that criticizes the art collectors who tried to buy it. It said “you can’t have something that belongs to the public,” a sentiment expressed in an older Banksy piece that showcased his opinion of art auctions.
This earlier art piece read: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this s—.”
By putting Banksy’s piece on auction, the anonymous seller and Sotheby’s equated him to the capitalistic art world, which he so often tries to speak out against.
Following the stunt, Banksy posted an Instagram video of him from 2006 when he had initially installed a shredder into the frame.
Alex Branczik, senior director of Sotheby’s and head of contemporary European art, had assumed the event was an exhibition of what it’s like to be “Banksy-ed,” according to an article in The Washington Post. The word was used as a filler to explain the mysterious, rabble-rousing nature of the artist’s stunt rather than the meaning behind it.
In the words of the renowned communications professor Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message,” meaning that every form of media created by man (the medium) influences the messages it transmits and how they are interpreted by other people.
Such is the case with Banksy’s stunt. It was not that Banksy shredded the piece that mattered, it was the reason why he did it.
But Branczik thought the value of the stunt was the stunt itself, which he interpreted to be a unique display of Banksy’s persona.
Other art dealers such as Stephan Keszler told the same magazine that the piece was not as renowned as his street work and therefore wouldn’t rise in price. This implies that the value of the act lies in the final product and not the act itself.
What these two opinions have in common is that they both assume that Banksy’s act was aimed at generating profit.
Branczik is right in saying that the value of the stunt lies in the stunt itself, but it wasn’t about making the art increase in value. Banksy was seeking the attention of the art collectors.
It remains a mystery who put “Girl with Balloon,” on auction, but it is possible that it wasn’t Banksy. Some artwork is auctioned off through what is called the “secondary market,” which refers to artwork that is purchased directly from the artist or gallery and later put up on auction by the secondary source.
Banksy was quoted in a 2013 article by The New York Times as having 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.”
Banksy makes an effort to let people know that his work belongs to the public. On his website, he lists a number of his free exhibitions around the world in contrast to ones he claims are fake. In August, he posted a screenshot on Instagram of his conversation with someone over text. His text read: “I don’t charge people to see my art unless there’s a fairground wheel.”
His “Girl with the Balloon” piece has since been renamed to “Love is in the Bin.” It is displayed at Sotheby’s Bond Street Galleries, where the art is considered a piece of art history.
When people go to see the infamous shredded piece on display, they will gaze upon the canvas and feel closer to the moment it was shredded. They will walk away feeling as though they had been “Banksy-ed.”
As they are lost in the hollow translation of that word, they will forget the man behind it. The one who has continuously advocated against the capitalistic and unequal conditions which ultimately led the piece to be there.
The shredding of “Girl with Balloon” pollinated the world the way a butterfly does a flower; nobody realizes butterflies pollinate, as they are often too busy staring at their beauty to recognize the true importance beyond it.