“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” Bristol-born British graffiti artist Banksy quoted the 19th century Russian anarchist theorist Mikhail Bakunin — and attributed it to the Spanish iconoclast Pablo Picasso in an Instagram post — before he explained how he had hidden a shredder in the frame of a copy of his work, Girl with Balloon, for it to self-destruct if it ever went up for an auction. Which, of course, it did, and, self-destructing in dramatic style moments after auction house Sotheby’s sold it for $1.4 million last Friday.
The turning of a white-collar auction into an evening of performance art deserves applause, but the plot goes deeper. It indicates a shrewd business acumen and an unmistakable love of satire. For, what could be more anarchist than a graffiti artist increasing the value of his work with the flick of a button while poking fun at the art world and its excesses? An auction is serious business and it is unlikely that the shredder and the trigger could have gone undetected, even though Sotheby’s has denied any knowledge. Voted as UK’s best-loved artwork last year, Girl with Balloon was already an iconic work. In recent years, the paintings — reproductions of the original image spray-painted on an East London building in early 2000s — have seen an annual increase in value of about 20 per cent. Now the semi-shredded canvas will forever wear the tag of the “first-ever” in art history.
Perhaps Banksy had a point when he alluded to Picasso in his Instagram post. After all, the 20th century Cubist artist summed it up best when he said, “Everything you can imagine is real.” In imagining a conceptual moment in how his art might be remembered, Banksy has created a work whose value can only be assessed in posterity, but whose price will remain in step with the art world’s idiosyncratic bars. It’s an irony the anonymous Banksy is likely to enjoy.