Art or Stunt?

“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge—Picasso.” Banksy posted this caption along with a video on his Instagram, admitting that he was involved in the destruction of his own painting this October at an auction house.

Banksy is an anonymous English street artist, activist, and film director. He began his career spray-painting buildings in Bristol, and his mischievous and unique works with controversial socio-political meanings soon gained acclaim. “Girl with Balloon,” which depicts a child reaching up to a heart-shaped red balloon, was originally stenciled on a wall in east London in 2002. In 2006, the artist re-painted the picture on canvas.

On October 5, the canvas version was purchased for 1.37 million dollars at Sotheby’s auction house in London. Just as the auctioneer struck the gavel, Banksy, disguised in the crowd, started a self-destruction mechanism built in the frame that reduced the canvas to shreds. The work has been retitled “Love is in the Bin,” and the buyer whose identity has not yet been revealed decided to keep the painting despite the damage.

But why did Banksy do this?

One theory is that the entire event was a planned publicity stunt, and Sotheby’s knew about it beforehand, as it has put both Banksy and Sotheby’s under the spotlight. The price of “Girl with Balloon” has moreover gone up to $2 million after its destruction. This theory highlights the unlikelihood that experts at Sotheby’s who evaluated the work would not notice the destruction mechanism hidden inside the frame. However, Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s senior director and head of contemporary art in Europe, claimed that the auction house did not know about the mechanism because the frame is provided by the artist himself.

The other more recognized theory is that Banksy did this to criticize the commercialized art market. Many of Banksy’s works revolve around the theme of consumerism; he is disappointed how something subjective and abstract like art can be given a value and sold. According to art historian Preminda Jacob, this may be Banksy’s attempt to point out the central absurdity of his graffiti art being treated as fine art. When it appears on city streets, anyone can vandalize it; now that the same images are in galleries and auction houses, they must be handled with white gloves. Like many other contemporary artists, Banksy’s action suggests that all forms of art should be treated equally and displayed in public for everyone to enjoy and interpret.

As for me, the shredding of “Girl with Balloon” is a work of performance art in its own right, whether Banksy initiated the project to attract attention or simply convey a message. He has shown the public another possibility of what art can entail, and further establishes himself as an innovative and subversive artist. As the first ever artwork created live during an auction, “Love is in the Bin” is not only a renowned painting, but also a milestone in art history.