It was like a scene out of a movie.
“‘Girl with Balloon,’ ladies and gentlemen standing in the back of the room,” auctioneer Oliver Barker announced with a bumptious bravado.
He was referring to the final lot of a Sotheby’s London auction on Friday, Oct. 5. The piece: a 2006 spray-paint-on-canvas work by the anonymous street artist Banksy.
When it hit the auction block, Barker began shouting out six-figure prices that bidders gobbled up, causing the painting’s value to climb higher and higher in a frantic crescendo. Women in dresses and pearls clamped their hands over landline telephones to field anonymous requests. Men in suits jotted important messages down into even more important notebooks.
“Sold!” Barker chirped, rap-tap-tapping his gavel against the podium. The piece went for $1.4 million ― over three times the estimated price ― tying the current record for a Banksy artwork.
Just then, however, the piece’s clunky frame erupted into an alarming and persistent beeping sound. The canvas descended through the bottom of the frame and emerged on the other side in tatters. The shredding process froze about halfway through, leaving the top portion of the painting intact. The bottom, however, appeared to be macerated into tiny ribbons.
Guards scurried to remove the triaged painting as bewildered bystanders held out their iPhone cameras in disbelief. One harried, bespectacled man wiped his brow as if he’d just seen a ghost, while another gazed stupefied upon the spectacle with childish glee.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to move on here, if I could have your attention!” the auctioneer bellowed. Easier said than done, Oliver. It’s not every day an artist instructs his own million-dollar artwork to self-destruct.
“It appears we just got Banksy-ed,” Alex Branczik, senior director and head of contemporary art in Europe and London, later said in a news conference.
For those of us who don’t frequent multimillion-dollar art auctions, the stunt provided a delightfully unexpected image, one of stodgy collectors and buttoned-up salespeople stunned into silence by the unmistakable sound of art money shredding.
The breathless praise quickly poured in as critics effectively transformed the shredding incident from a simple act of trolling into an Art Historical Event™.
“Banksy pranked the insidious auction world and disrupted the flow of capital – if only for an evening,” New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz tweeted. “I’m not a Banksy fan but this made we want to dance barefoot with him.”
Saltz elaborated on his gushing reaction in an interview with NPR. “The market is such a kind of dumb organism,” he said. “People in the market buy what other people in the market buy. And suddenly, one of the things they are buying changed.”
To Saltz, Banksy’s gesture was an artistic middle finger to the grotesque excess and wanton whims of the art market. And he wasn’t alone. “Banksy’s shredded Sotheby’s art was a rebuke of empty consumerism from a master,” a Vox explainer proposed, adding “there’s one thing you’ll never call Banksy — and that’s a sell-out.”
But how much of a “rebuke of empty consumerism” is Banksy’s ploy, really? Especially after art broker Joey Syer estimated that the half-shredded piece could now be worth double its initial price, “possibly as high as being worth £2 million ($2.6 million).”
In an email to HuffPost, street art experts Steven Harrington and Jaime Rojo, who run the popular blog Brooklyn Street Art, said they believe that estimate could be conservative. “The original piece no longer exists,” they explained. “A new one does, transformed from the old, and along with it comes a well-documented history that includes performance, a stunned audience, a global social media discussion. It’s hard to say how high this will go. Doubling [the price] may just be the start.”
As filmmaker Kaveh Abbasian tweeted, “Is this capitalism in its most deceptive form, selling itself as anti-capitalism?”
The thing is, in rebelling against the monied art establishment, Banksy still profits. According to The New York Times, Sotheby’s did not divulge the identity of the painting’s seller, who acquired it “directly from the artist by the present owner in 2006” per the Sotheby’s catalog. Yet even if he didn’t see any of the $1.4 million, he’s ensured that future auction estimates of his work will take into account the potential for post-gavel antics and the ballooning prices that come with them.
Banksy has long been both artist and troll, revolutionary and hypocrite. The art establishment tolerates his attempts at subversion because he never quite bites the hand that feeds him. Instead, he prefers a light wrist-slap and then a kiss. (“Girl with Balloon” put the aging auction behemoth Sotheby’s back in the headlines for a minute, didn’t it?)
This latest prank made me think of Sacha Baron Cohen’s series “This Is America,” in which the star dupes unsuspecting individuals to show just how broken America is. Like Cohen, Banksy’s power and privilege limit his ability to meaningfully dismantle the system he so clearly benefits from. Was the gesture really anything more than just a wink at his own do-no-wrong superpowers? At this point, is Banksy too big, too rich, too famous to bash the market that’s made him so?
“Banksy is as much of a capitalist as anyone else,” Harrington and Rojo added in their email. “Assertions otherwise are drearily in denial.”
Also in denial: perhaps Sotheby’s itself.
The auction house claimed to be innocent of the evening’s surprise grand finale; Branczik claimed he was “not in on the ruse” at a news conference afterward. But multiple factors suggest that Sotheby’s was in on the joke. First, the piece hit the auction block last, even thought it wasn’t the most expensive work up for sale that night. Second, as Andrew Bloch pointed out on Twitter, a piece this size would normally be displayed on a podium during the sale, not hung on the wall. And are we meant to believe that auction specialists inspecting the piece prior to the sale wouldn’t have noticed a shredder built into the painting’s frame?
Sotheby’s did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on whether or not the company had prior knowledge of Banksy’s performance, or whether or not the buyer expressed dissatisfaction with the shredded result.
Additionally frustrating is the fact that Banksy’s ploy grabbed attention from another art historical turning point of the evening, the breaking of the current auction price record for an artwork by a living female artist. Jenny Saville’s 1992 “Propped” sold for £9.5 million ($12.4 million), marking an important milestone for female artists fighting to have their work priced comparably to their male peers, but you probably didn’t hear about that.
It’s true that Banksy’s prank prompted mischief in an environment known for its upper-crustiness, lighting a trick candle in a musty room. At the very least, he made people gasp and laugh, which, given the news cycle of last week, was a charitable act indeed.
Some will categorize the event as a PR stunt or cute hoax, others as an art historical turning point akin to Duchamp’s “Fountain.” The blurry boundary between the two speaks to the current, muddy art historical moment, where social media hype outweighs the opinion of experts and academics. It’s harder than ever to decipher a mere break-the-internet provocation from a game-changing, artistic innovation.