It may seem ridiculous that anyone would pay £1.04 million (AUD $1.95 million), for Banksy’s Balloon Girl in 2018, but it’s slightly nauseating that a half-shredded version, rechristened Love is in the Bin, should be selling for £4-6 million in 2021. One might go even further and say Banksy’s entire career is a gravity-defying absurdity, which he plays like a violin.
We all know Banksy, or rather don’t know Banksy – the British street artist whose identity remains the best-kept secret in contemporary culture. Even this, however, is a game, because one doesn’t have to look too far to find a name. Banksy’s anonymity has been preserved because he is more valuable as a man of mystery than as a recognisable, photographable individual. To expose Banksy would not only work against the artist’s interests but against those of a multi-million dollar market that has grown up around him.
Banksy’s rise to stardom began around 2000 when he traded freehand graffiti art for stencilled works which could be precisely designed and rapidly executed. He has a talent for sharp, witty graphics that act as oblique forms of social and political critique. It’s an irony, of which Banksy is keenly aware, that artworks critical of the depredations of capitalism have become fashionable, hyper-expensive commodities sought after by celebrities and wealthy collectors.
To fund his increasingly diverse operations, which include films, public art and activism all over the world, Banksy discreetly sells a small number of pieces every year through a self-created agency called Pest Control.
The version of Balloon Girl put up for auction at Sotheby’s in 2018 was one of these market-made works: a hand-made copy of an iconic image that first appeared in 2002, and has been repeated many times. The picture is simplicity itself – a little girl holding a bright red balloon in the shape of a heart, preventing it from being blown away by the wind. The message is equally simple: Hold on to your heart, don’t let your sense of compassion be swept away by the forces we face in our daily lives.
It’s now history that when the gavel went down to secure the sale for £1,042,000 – a new record price for the artist – a siren started to wail and the picture began sliding out of the bottom of the frame, passing through a concealed shredding device. Half-way through, the device jammed, leaving the work in a semi-shredded state. In after-sale negotiations the buyer shrewdly agreed to finalise the purchase for the hammer price.
One can imagine how the Sotheby’s experts responded to this event once they had gotten over their initial shock. A quick consideration of the Banksy phenomenon and the impact of this massive publicity stunt suggested they might have an even more valuable work on their hands. If the original buyer pulled out there would be plenty willing to take her place.
In its new incarnation, Love is in the Bin is billed as the world’s first work of art created during an auction. Banksy swears it wasn’t supposed to happen like that, and blames the malfunctioning shredder for an artefact poised somewhere between the gallery wall and the bin. It may not have been intentional but the action has redounded in his favour in terms of that notoreity which is one of the most bankable qualities of contemporary art.
Although he may have wanted to short-circuit an art market that has grown bloated and indiscriminate as volumes of new money are spent on status symbols, Banksy has merely confirmed everybody’s worst suspicions, proving that the market is infinitely flexible and adaptable. It’s like a massive octopus – cut off a tentacle and it will grow rapidly back – at six times the value.
There is, in fact, a respectable art historical lineage for Banksy’s act, which is a classic attempt to épater les bourgeoise – to offend or disconcert the middle classes with a rule-breaking work of art. Manet did it with Olympia (1863), a picture of a modern girl in the pose of a classical nude; Duchamp with Fountain (1917), a store-bought porcelain urinal signed “R.Mutt”. Épater long enough and the bourgeoisie begin to like it. The Montmartre café, Le Chat Noir, did a roaring trade after it began insulting and ignoring customers who were titillated by the experience.
Another source of pedigree is the Auto-destructive Art movement, initiated by Gustav Metzger (1926-2017), whom I remember as a little old man one often saw at London gallery openings. Metzger’s avant-garde idea was to create works of art that self-destructed, reversing the idea of art as a wedge against time. Avowedly anti-capitalist and anti-market, the movement was intended to draw attention to the more dangerously destructive powers of politics.
The most famous auto-destructive artwork was Jean Tinguley’s Homage to New York (1960) a fantastic, elaborate machine that worried itself to bits in the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art, in front of an invited audience.
Love is in the Bin is very much the child of artists such as Metzger and Tinguely, but in its frozen, semi-destroyed state it has become a unique item, now worthy of being kept under glass, or perhaps in a bank vault. Indeed, the crazy escalation in prices for Banksy’s slight, whimsical works, many of which were intended to be ephemeral, is reminiscent of the Tulip mania that swept through Holland in the early 17th century. The Dutch paid lunatic prices to possess tulip bulbs, and today’s investors and über collectors fork out millions for stencilled pictures made by an artist-anarchist with no respect for unique objects or authorised editions.
What Banksy has done is expose the decadence of collectors and museums that get a special thrill spending a fortune on works that challenge the very system which creates extreme personal wealth. The Victorians had a fetish for “ornamental poverty”, festooning their drawing rooms with pictures of poor urchins shivering on street corners, and today’s wealthy collectors enjoy the idea of “ornamental activism”. Gung-ho capitalists take a keen pleasure in possessing works that denounce capitalism, and are willing to pay milions for the privilege.
It allows collectors to imagine themselves engaged in a dangerous, cutting-edge activity, being besieged on all sides. On the other hand perhaps they like to feel they are good people who support all these humanitarian causes, even if their commercial practices suggest the very opposite. After all, business is business, isn’t it?
Needless to say, some believe Love is in the Bin is the fruit of a big conspiracy cooked up by Banksy, Sotheby’s and complicit buyers, to ramp the market for the artist’s work. This seems highly unlikely because the ramping would have occurred as a kind of mechanism, even if the painting had been completely shredded. Regardless of his subversive intentions Banksy couldn’t help but benefit from the furore. So why would anybody need to collude? It’s an affair dictated by the implacable logic of an insatiable, amoral art market that knows no boundaries.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 October, 2021
PS. The revamped work was eventually resold by Sotheby’s for £18.5 (AUD $34 million)