Banksy Shreds His $1.4 Million Painting at Auction, Taking a Tradition of Artists Destroying Art to New Heights

The first time van­dals defaced his sculp­ture, Dirty Cor­ner, at Ver­sailles, artist Anish Kapoor wrote an essay in which he con­sid­ered his options:

Should the paint that has been thrown all over the sculp­ture be removed? Or should it remain and be part of the work? Does the polit­i­cal vio­lence of the van­dal­ism make Dirty Cor­ner “dirt­i­er”? Does this dirty polit­i­cal act reflect the dirty pol­i­tics of exclu­sion, mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion, elit­ism, racism, Islam­o­pho­bia?

The ques­tion I ask of myself is: can I, the artist, trans­form this crass act of polit­i­cal van­dal­ism and vio­lence into a cre­ative act? Would this not be the best revenge?

Some­times artists are the ones behind the van­dal­ism.

Ai Wei­wei starred in a 1995 black-and-white pho­to trip­tych that doc­u­ments his inten­tion­al destruc­tion of a Han Dynasty urn from his pri­vate col­lec­tion.

Broth­ers Jake and Dinos Chap­man pur­chased a mint con­di­tion set of Goya’s The Dis­as­ters of War, painstak­ing­ly re-ren­dered the vic­tims’ heads as grotesque­ly cute, col­or­ful car­toons, and exhib­it­ed the altered etch­ings under the title Insult to Injury.

Robert Rauschen­berg sought and received per­mis­sion to erase a draw­ing that his fel­low Abstract Expres­sion­ist Willem de Koon­ing had giv­en him, at his request.

Cer­tain­ly, artists of all stripes have been known to erad­i­cate their own work in fits of pique, pas­sion, and self-reproach.

But until last week, no artist had ever van­dal­ized their own work with such a dis­pas­sion­ate, pre-med­i­tat­ed sense of fun as Banksy, the anony­mous clown prince of street art and mas­sive scale pranks.

As you’ve like­ly heard by now, with­in sec­onds of his icon­ic Girl With Bal­loon (2006) sell­ing at Sotheby’s for £1,042,000—$1.4 million—the paint­ing began to self-destruct, thanks to a cus­tom-built shred­der the artist had pre-loaded into its frame.

No one seemed par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­tressed about it.

Auc­tion atten­dees quick­ly scram­bled to cap­ture the moment with their cell phones.

Auc­tion­eer Oliv­er Bark­er looks on in admirably mild con­fu­sion.

No self-appoint­ed hero rushed for­ward to jam the works with an umbrel­la or broom han­dle.

The as-yet-uniden­ti­fied buy­er was not in the room, no doubt to their ever-last­ing regret. Imag­ine los­ing out on those brag­ging rights!

While Sotheby’s and the buy­er ham­mer out their unprece­dent­ed next steps, some art experts have stat­ed that it would be pos­si­ble, giv­en the clean geom­e­try of the cuts, to restore the can­vas.

Though who would want to, giv­en the spec­u­la­tion that this stunt imme­di­ate­ly increased the val­ue of the work, any­where from 50% to near dou­ble the pur­chase price?

Per­haps the buy­er will choose to fin­ish the job and sell it off strip-by-strip.

Office sup­ply stores will see an uptick in shred­der sales to ven­dors sell­ing Banksy knock-offs sten­cilled on sub­way maps.

Sotheby’s senior direc­tor, Alex Branczik, insist­ed that no one there was in on the joke, but The New York Times smells a rat:

The frame would pre­sum­ably have been rather heavy and thick for its size, some­thing an auc­tion house spe­cial­ist or art han­dler might have noticed. Detailed con­di­tion reports are rou­tine­ly request­ed by the would-be buy­ers of high-val­ue art­works. Unusu­al­ly, this rel­a­tive­ly small Banksy had been hung on a wall, rather than placed by porters on a podi­um for the moment of sale. 

The fact that Girl with Bal­loon was the final item on the block is either a great piece of luck, or a bit of can­ny stage man­age­ment on the auc­tion house’s part. Recap­tur­ing the atten­dees’ atten­tion after that stunt would be an uphill bat­tle.

It’s doubt­ful that buy­ers will shy away from Sotheby’s as a place where high­ly val­ued art­work starts to devour itself the moment the gav­el comes down. That kind of light­ning strikes but once.

What may cir­cle back to bite the ven­er­a­ble firm in its well padded rear is the ease with which some­one in the crowd was able to acti­vate the may­hem, using a device con­cealed in his bag. What’s worse, lax secu­ri­ty or maybe lying about fore­knowl­edge of the prank? It’s hard not to raise those as pos­si­bil­i­ties.

The man with the bag was escort­ed out. Not even the con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists are peg­ging him as Banksy.

As for the steady-hand­ed fel­low anoth­er attendee caught calm­ly zoom­ing in on his phone from the per­fect angle… well, let’s just say the tabloids have picked up on his resem­blance to Robin Gun­ning­ham, oft thought to be Clark Kent to Banksy’s Super­man.

Banksy’s post-mortem, unlike Kapoor’s, does not sug­gest a man tor­tured by unre­solved ques­tions.

“A few years ago I secret­ly built a shred­der into a paint­ing, in case it was ever put up for auc­tion,” he wrote on his Insta­gram. “Going, going, gone.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Robert Rauschen­berg Asked Willem De Koon­ing for One of His Paint­ings … So That He Could Erase It

Watch Dis­ma­land — The Offi­cial Unof­fi­cial Film, A Cin­e­mat­ic Jour­ney Through Banksy’s Apoc­a­lyp­tic Theme Park

Pat­ti Smith Presents Top Web­by Award to Banksy; He Accepts with Self-Mock­ing Video

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Octo­ber 15 for anoth­er month­ly install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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