By now, even those of us who pay no attention at all to the art market have heard about Banksy’s latest art stunt: a painting called Balloon Girl that, when it sold for $1.4 million at auction, then immediately shredded itself. Assessments on the intent and impact of the piece’s self-destruction have varied: many have complained that, far from the bold statement against the economics of modern art it may have looked like (and many of Banksy’s fans may well have come to expect from his artistic persona), it could also be nothing more than a cynical publicity stunt to raise the speculative value of his work further still. And a counterpoint, in the words of economist Tyler Cowen, an expert on the economics of culture in his own right: “Banksy is a genius.”
So how properly to think about the Balloon Girl stunt, which has received no small amount of press but which remains something of an unsettled issue? Here to help clarify the matter is a new and topical episode of The Art Assignment, John and Sarah Green’s web series previously featured here on Open Culture.
As well as providing a brief primer on Banksy and the way his career has so far made its mark (often literally) on the world, the eleven-minute video gets into how his building a shredder into a picture frame and setting it off at the moment of sale fits into his body of work, art history, and the international art scene as it is today.
“There are many ways a work of art comes into being, be it an additive process, a subtractive process, one that must unfold in space and time, or one that’s immaterial and not existing until the moment it’s performed and then disappearing as soon as it’s over,” says Sarah Green. “Girl with Balloon was one artwork, and now it’s another that came into being through a public auction but which still very much has a material presence, because the object wasn’t destroyed — it’s only half-shredded — and since it was canvas going through, the remaining fringe is pretty stable.” In a sense, then, even this self-destructing artwork never really self-destructed. So what, in artistic terms, actually happened to it? We may continue arguing about it for years, but it will always come back to the shredding itself — an event relivable at any time in Banksy’s “director’s cut” video just above.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.