Contemporary art often seems confusing, ridiculous and just plain silly to many. Take, for example, “Merda d’artista” (1961) by Italian artist Piero Manzoni, consisting of 90 tin cans filled with 30 grams each of the artist’s excrement, a tin of which sold for €124,000 at Sotheby’s in 2007. Or Yves Klein’s “Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle” (1959), a work in which Klein would sell empty space (the Immaterial Zone) in the form of a check in exchange for gold. The work would then be completed by a ritual where the buyer would burn the check and Klein would throw the gold into the Seine. At the time, conceptual art was just emerging, and the French public could not help being simultaneously scandalized and awed.
Modern audiences are no less immune to such stunts as Banksy’s print of “Girl with Balloon” (2002), which self-destructed by means of a shredder hidden in the bottom of its frame immediately after selling for $1.4 million at auction a couple of weeks ago. The video has since gained over 12 million views on Instagram. “This was pure genius!!!!” wrote one commenter. “I feel sorry for the woman who buyed it :(” wrote another.
Still others were more concerned with the exact mechanics of the whole operation. How had Banksy managed to build the shredder into the frame? And how had it been timed so perfectly, self-destructing immediately after the hammer went down in what seemed like a perfect made-for-social-media moment? As the auctioneer said, “It’s a brilliant Banksy moment, this. You couldn’t make it up, could you?”
One wonders, however, if Sotheby’s wasn’t entirely out of the loop. Although the auction house’s head of contemporary art in Europe has stated he was “not in on the ruse,” it seems strange that none of the art experts handling or inspecting the artwork noticed anything unusual about the painting’s frame or weight. Likewise, the painting was the last work to be sold at the auction, positioning itself as just the right trick for a grand finale.
The painting has now been retitled “Love is in the Bin” and, in its destroyed state, is speculated to be worth up to 50 percent more than its original value. Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe described it as “the first artwork in history to have been created live during an auction.” Banksy, in his caption for the video on Instragram, wrote, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” a quotation oft-misattributed to Pablo Picasso but actually thought to be the words of the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
And yet, love is not entirely in the bin; the work was not shredded to completion. Half the painting remains in its frame while the strips of the other half dangle like those tear-off tabs on flyers, the whole thing still poised perfectly for displaying the process of the stunt. It isn’t just the self-destruction of the art that increases its value, it’s the context of the auction house where the performance of self-destruction took place — the whole viral phenomenon of the affair.
Is this genius? The concept of self-destructive art is not a new one; the Auto-Destructive Art movement, coined by Gustav Metzger, began after WWII to bring attention to the destruction of war and to reinvent old beliefs. Metzger, like many artists of the time, criticized the commercialism and mass-production of art and the upper-class art establishment. Banksy, too, has brought attention to this on numerous occasions, most notably with 2015’s Dismaland and his Central Park experiment of selling authentic works for $60 each.
Many applaud the British street artist for his trolling of the upper class and the art establishment. Still others have labeled him a sell-out. If the purpose of the feat was to criticize the commercialization and commodification of art, it seems to do a rather shallow job of it. If its purpose was simply to turn him into a headline again, there’s no doubt it has succeeded.
Whether Banksy’s self-destroying art actually contributes something new to the discussion about the value of art or simply serves as an empty gesture made for the social media era, there’s no doubt that Banksy will be laughing all the way to the bank.
Ramya Yandava is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ramy’s Rambles runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.