A few weeks ago, during the ache and anticipation of the Brett Kavanaugh debacle, the art world endured a disaster of its own. Sotheby’s auctioned off a painting, Girl With Balloon, by 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? How would it affect the resale value? “Sotheby’s has not named the client whose $1.4 million purchase was destroyed,” a New York Times 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. Irreplaceable pieces of Charles Saatchi’s contemporary art collection, which perished in a 2006 East London warehouse fire — those were destroyed. Girl With Balloon’s destruction, however, was a conceptual artist transforming his own piece of art. He 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 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 artist restating a message he has repeated again and again. The art world continues to ignore it.
Banksy made his position clear in 2006, when he lamented 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 specifically created for the primary art market — which is to say, work for which they will receive some or all of the proceeds — so they can continue their original pursuit of making street art.
Street artists put themselves and their personal safety at risk to create work that is free to all. They do not profit from this work. Rather, they do it because they have something to say, and because they believe in the power of art in everyday life. To chisel their work off a building — a place where the artist chose to display it openly for the public — in order to personally profit from it is a craven act. It shows a bald-faced disdain for artists and a staggering lack of understanding about what makes a piece of art valuable. Too much of the art world doesn’t care about that kind of value.
Banksy was showing us our greed, our capitalist desire to possess objects that are not possessable, our myopia.
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 a wall pattern. It was a comment on the things we pay attention to, like a giant pink elephant walking around a room filled with wealthy collectors and celebrities, and the things we ignore, like everyone who will never step foot in a room like that.
And the media took the bait. All of its coverage was about the painted elephant: Was the nontoxic children’s face paint harming the elephant? Should the Los Angeles Animal Services Department rescind its permit allowing the elephant to appear in the show? Almost none of the coverage 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, which was available to anyone who attended the exhibition.
There was a second elephant in the room: the fact that 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 painting’s subject or its history, thus overlooking the profound irony of its “destruction.” In the composition, a small girl lets go (or loses hold) of a red heart-shaped balloon, watching as it floats off, her hand outstretched. She is guileless, the visual embodiment of innocence and purity and losing heart.
If I were to rewrite my 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 destroy.”
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 Banksy placed this same piece in a self-destructing frame was no accident.
If you are unmoved by my argument and still want to consider Girl With Balloon destroyed, know this: It certainly wasn’t destroyed by Banksy. The auctioneer’s gavel, spurred by the winning bid, was the trip wire. If I were to reframe the event, to rewrite my 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 destroy.”
Don’t be fooled. The art market shredded Girl With Balloon. If it had not been auctioned, if an anonymous bidder hadn’t been willing to pay over a million dollars for it — not one cent of which the artist would ever see — it would have remained intact in its frame, and none of us would have been the wiser.