How Banksy’s Self-Shredding Art Piece Critiques the Elite Art World
by Izzi Mata
The idea that art is supposed to disturb the comfortable has been shaping the Western art world for centuries. Banksy, an anonymous street artist whose work is known for its sharp critique of Western culture, has been a primary instigator in that disruption. However, following a stunt at an auction this past October, it seems as though Banksy no longer shocks the art world, like he did at the beginning of his career.
Last October, Banksy’s famed piece, “Girl With Balloon,” shredded itself after the gavel fell on its $1,349,405.63 sale at a Sotheby’s auction. When Banksy sells his work he usually does so privately and well below market value, so when one of his pieces is up for auction it’s often a second-hand sale or a piece that’s been removed from the streets.
Banksy began his career annoying Bristol law enforcement as a graffiti artist. As time went on he and other street artists caught the attention of the art world and literally went from rags to riches. As Banksy’s fame grew, so did the depths of his digs at Western culture. From children sewing Union Jack bunting for the Diamond Jubilee to kittens stenciled onto bombed out buildings in the Gaza strip it became increasingly clear that to put a Banksy in a museum or private home was to miss its point entirely, further engaging with the culture it sought to condemn.
But Banksy’s anonymity and refusal to play with the system the way other street artists have has made his work all the more desirable, and as time has passed it’s become less likely to find his pieces painted over or washed off by law enforcement and more likely to find them put up for auction. For an artist like Banksy, who seeks to shock, the auction house is where his creations are the least effective. The shredding of “Girl With Balloon” sought to change this. The stunt could be seen as Banksy’s attempt to continue to make uncomfortable the people his work has always critiqued. This time, however, the response didn’t seem to acknowledge the message Banksy was trying to get across.
Since the incident, Alex Branczik, the head of contemporary art for the Sotheby auction house has been quoted as saying that this piece, now known as “Love is in the Bin,” is “the first in history to have been created live during an auction.”
The woman who purchased the piece has agreed to still go through with buying it, saying, “When the hammer came down last week and the work was shredded, I was at first shocked, but gradually I began to realise that I would end up with my own piece of art history.”
The language used by the art world regarding the self-shredding piece has generally been awe, while the general public agrees the original piece was destroyed. And the language used by Banksy himself? Cryptic as usual.
In three seperate Instagram posts Banksy offers insight to what took place, first by saying, “Going, going, gone...” beneath a photo of “Love is in the Bin,” posted the day of the auction. The following day, he posted a video with the caption, “‘The urge to destroy is also a creative urge’ - Picasso” The video opens with the words “A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting” then cuts to a scene of what is presumably Banksy assembling the shredder.
The video transitions to the phrase, “in case it was ever put up for auction…” and then shows the sale and shredding of the piece. A week later Banksy posted a picture of “Girl with Balloon” with the caption, “Shredding the Girl and Balloon - the Director's cut. Link in bio. Some people think it didn't really shred. It did. Some people think the auction house were in on it, they weren't.” That link has since been removed.
The December following Banksy’s auction house stunt The Art Newspaper ran an article titled, “Street art is on the rise at fairs - but does it undermine the point?” Lisa Schiff, an art advisor based in New York said, “Street art should disrupt the commercial and institutional setting. I don’t want it in a museum or a fair.” While street artist Shepard Fairey, most commonly known for his brand Obey Giant, stated, “The fine-art and street-art worlds are not in conflict” and that he believes the presence of street art in galleries has “the potential to change minds” as “sometimes you can change the system from within.”
While it’s impossible to know which stance Banksy takes, the shredding of “Girl with Balloon” supports both arguments. On one hand it’s a way of stating that a high end auction block isn’t where his art belongs. The shredder had been hidden in a gilded frame, a style of frame that Banksy uses specifically to mock high art. It had also been timed to drop the piece as soon as the gavel fell; a rude gesture to those who had engaged in the bidding war for the right to call it theirs. On the other hand, if it was truly important to Banksy that his piece not sell he could have triggered the shredder before the auction. Shredding the piece the moment it sold meant he was in the heart of the system, primed to deliver his usual critique and certain to have an audience.
While it seems antithetical that Banksy’s critical, anonymous, street aesthetic would work with the high art world rather than against it, the bigger unlikelihood would be for the high art world to actually heed Banksy’s lesson. As this gluttonous, distracted world is consuming street art at a breakneck pace will this new approach of working from within be enough to get their attention, or will it be back to the drawing board for Banksy?
A freelance illustrator and graphic designer who was born and raised in rural Colorado. Movie buff, climber, gamer, she also bakes a killer flourless chocolate cake. Passionate about human rights and not entirely sure why so much of her wardrobe is black, she’s always up for a good discussion and loves hearing people talk about their passions and interests.