‘The Urge to Destroy is Also a Creative Urge’ - Picasso
Sotheby’s has recently played host to the first ever piece of live performance art to be sold at auction. As the comfortable applause that celebrated the end of a successful auction died down, Banksy’s ‘Girl with a balloon’ slid gracefully from its gold frame, shredding itself in the process. A shocked stillness ensued, the relaxed chatter punctured by uneasy gasps while the auction house’s alarm system added to the sense of disaster. But, far from an act of destruction, both Sotheby’s and Banksy are describing the event as a creation of a new piece of art, unfinished until now, named ‘Love is in the bin’. As a Sotheby's spokesman said, "It is a different work to the one that appeared in the catalogue, but nonetheless it is an intentional work of art, not a destroyed painting.” Banksy has once again mischievously tested the parameters of artistic creativity. Simultaneously, he transformed an inaccessible auction house into a site for public questions and debate.
But how did Banksy manage to sneak a self-destruction device into Sotheby’s, one of the highest profile auction houses in the world? Were Sotheby’s in on the prank? Apparently not. “We were Banksy’d,” proclaimed Alex Branczyk, head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s. Branczik told The Art Newspaper, "Pest Control [Banksy's authentication board] said very clearly: the frame is integral to the artwork.” He went on to explain "we also had a third-party conservator look at the work.” The added weight from the attached shredder was apparently overlooked because the overall piece seemed “more like a sculpture. If it says the frame is integral, you don't rip it apart.” The BBC has recently reported that Banksy’s former gallerist Steve Lazarides said: “I worked for him for 12 years, the idea of him colluding with an institution to pull off a stunt is the complete antithesis to his philosophy.” It is both exciting and unnerving, to contemplate that Banksy did indeed pull off this prank without Sotheby’s awareness.
And yet the stunt didn't go entirely to plan. A video posted by Banksy on Instagram shows the piece being entirely shredded, to fall, tangled, to the floor while the guilt frame hung empty on the wall. Instead, ‘the girl with a balloon’ slid only three-quarters of the way out of the frame. Despite this, the winning bidder was reportedly happy to purchase the new piece. "At first I was shocked," said the proud owner of ‘Love is in the Bin’, ”but I realised I would end up with my own piece of art history.” Furthermore, the stunt has received loud praise from both art critics and the general public. BBC arts editor Will Gompertz has declared “It will come to be seen as one of the most significant artworks of the early 21st Century. It was brilliant in both conception and execution.” But what does the stunt mean for art history?
Banksy’s piece has earned a place in a long legacy of controversial and provocative art pieces of the 20th century. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and his Bicycle Wheel sparked a revolution, in which artists questioned, expanded and ridiculed the rules of the art world, and those that set them (including auction houses!). What counted as ‘art’ was stretched while artists empowered themselves to make the decision. Thus, in 1953, Robert Rauschenberg rubbed out a sketch gifted to him by Willem de Kooning. The blank sheet of paper was then mounted in a gilt frame, which was then labelled ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing. Robert Rauschenberg’. A new piece of art was created from the destruction of another.
In 2013 Banksy set up a stall selling his own original artwork for $60. He then filmed people passing by ignoring his art as fake and highlighting the importance of money in validating artwork. Today, Banksy destroyed one of Britain's best-loved art pieces before the eyes of the art worlds elite, and in so doing stretched still further the definition of art. His mischievous provocation is disruptive, but it is also creative. More importantly, it allows the viewer to think creatively about art for themselves. What is art? what is it worth? Why? It asks questions but doesn't provide answers.