In October 2018, Banksy’s Girl with Balloon painting shredded itself after it was sold to a collector at an auction for $1.4 million dollars. Banksy, an anonymous artist most famous for his satirical graffiti, has long been a controversial figure in the art world. Banksy’s work is contentious among critics because of its high market value, despite its guise as politically engaged street art working within the medium of graffiti. Banksy’s career has seen the artist transition from populist graffiti artist to highly prized “public” artist. Such a move was captured when the city of Toronto chose to relocate and cover its prized Banksy’s Police Guard Pink Balloon Dog artwork with one and a half tonnes of glass to protect the work from vandalism. Banksy’s recent trend in his work, and the art market’s endorsement of such trends by granting them record high prices, reflect the contemporary art world’s failure to identify and value artists who engage with the most compelling forms of critical interventions and visual creation.
Banksy has long captured the attention of the global media for stunts ranging from a pop-up dystopian amusement park to “reverse-theft” of artwork by hanging said work within major museums without permission. His most recent highly publicized stunt occurred when his Girl with Balloon painting unexpectedly “self-destructed” on Christy’s auction floor moments after the winning bidder was announced. The frame of the work concealed a hidden shredder, which the painting made it halfway through before the shredder supposedly jammed. Many critics were quick to applaud Banksy’s “evil trick” on the private collector art market, which has come under increasing scorn for its record high prices (typified by the $450.3 million sale of a potentially fake Leonardo da Vinci painting last year and the most recent sale of a $90.3 million David Hockney). An artist’s ability to capture such an immense degree of attention after shredding his own work reveals a market structure that values the wrong kinds of artistic endeavours.
While Banksy’s trick was an amusing gesture, it is crucial to realize that the work itself only further supports the troubling dynamics of the contemporary art market. The market has increasingly privileged only a select few, while undermining the ability for emerging artists to gain acclaim or market value. Banksy’s shredded painting is likely now worth much more than the $1.4 million that it initially sold for, given the immense notoriety that it now holds. Additionally, the prank has likely increased the overall value of his other works. Banksy should not be applauded as a great rebel within the contemporary art world. Instead, this stunt, for which Sotheby’s involvement is still unclear, highlights the failure of the art market to give notoriety and monetary value to artists expanding the topics and practice they use in their art making. Banksy’s assimilation into the dominant art world is further concerning for an artist who built a career on appropriating graffiti as a public art.
Erasure of one of Banksy’s artworks in the UK seaside town of Clacton-on-sea serves to highlight the potential failures of Banksy’s approach. Banksy painted a stenciled “anti-racist” image on the town’s boat house. The work included pigeons holding up signs, including one reading “migrants not welcome” to a colorful bird. Arianne Shahvisi, writing for Truthout, notes that within 48 hours, the city council had ordered for the work to be removed given its perceived offensive material and unapproved instillation – a rare move against a work of Banksy’s. While many denounced the town’s decision to “destroy” the work of such a famous artist, Shahvisi importantly identifies the frequency with which other forms of political graffiti, such as those by lower-class people, are quickly removed, even though graffiti is one of the few mediums for such communities to express their voice openly to the public realm. Shahvisi, therefore, makes the powerful claim that Banksy “speaks to and for the white middle classes, whose social status gleans an additional thrill from its fashionable – and disingenuous – connection with appropriated, white-washed aspects of working class culture.” While Banksy has brought attention to many important causes, his continued use of graffiti while he simultaneously benefits for the largess of the art market is particularly concerning.
Banksy has had a powerful impact on the way art is consumed and viewed by bringing his art to the streets, through his critical interventions into museums, and now into the auction house. Now, as Banksy’s works begin to demand record high prices, it is worth questioning whether he might just be exploiting his fame to encourage art market navel gazing, rather than using art in the radical way many critics and art buyers attribute to him. For starters, it is time for Banksy to finally reveal his true identity (widely thought to be white male) and consider how he can begin to support other artists to allow a deepening of the conversations he has sparked around who is given attention and market value. Banksy should also find support fellow emerging street artists, including an increasing cohort of women street artists. Otherwise, Banksy seems to be slipping towards becoming part of the very pop cultural monolith and overly economized art market he sought to avoid early in his work.