Creative Commons/Dominic Robinson
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Anonymous street artist and political activist Banksy has stepped back into the limelight to broadcast the shredding of his “Girl With Balloon” spray painting live across social media in a brilliant act of performance art and mockery of the process that turns meaningful artwork into an empty commodity.

It came at the conclusion of an auction held at Sotheby’s in London, stunning the onlookers in attendance. The auction fetched a price of $1.4 million – a record for the artist. The stunt set off widespread speculation about just how he managed to pull it off and the motives behind it.

To the casual observer unfamiliar with Banksy, it may appear to be little more than an obnoxious prank, but to those who are familiar with his reputation spotted a carefully planned transformation of his artwork: what was once an innocuous depiction of a little girl losing her red balloon is now a darkly satirical moment of something valuable being destroyed in the presence of our affluent social betters who were just moments ago vying to possess it.

Banksy is just as much a provocateur as he is an artist. Like Marcel Duchamp before him – a French artist who once placed an urinal in an art gallery in the early 1900’s – he is famous for eccentric and subversive art, fine examples being his “Flying Copper” piece featuring a heavily-armed police officer with a yellow smiley face framed by a pair of angel wings and the mural depicting Pulp Fiction’s John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson threateningly brandishing bananas.

As a street artist who made his name in the 90s spraying and daubing on walls doomed to be whitewashed by the city, Banksy has no lingering emotional attachment to his pieces, and his desire to create art certainly is not borne out of a desire for money. Destroying his own art to the horror of those watching, and letting the world watch them, is right up his alley.

“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” he glibly replied on his Instagram, quoting the late artist Picasso.  

The stunt was planned well in advance, explicitly for this purpose. In the Saturday evening after the auction, Banksy posted a video on his Instagram account showing a hooded figure fitting the shredding device to the painting. The caption attached claimed it was put in place years before.

Banksy’s critiques of the art world are nothing new. In 2005, dressed as an English pensioner, Banksy smuggled his artwork into several New York museums and placed his pieces in numerous art exhibits, making what may have been the usual museum stroll far more thought-provoking. His discount soup can print was allowed to remain in the Museum of Modern Art for over three days.

“This historic occasion has less to do with finally being embraced by the fine art establishment and is more about the judicious use of a fake beard and some high strength glue,” Banksy confessed at the time. “They’re good enough to be in there, so I don’t see why I should wait.”

Even the tools he chooses to create his masterpieces have added meaning beyond their practicality and pizzazz: “All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars,” he said to the Smithsonian Magazine, in one of the very few interviews he has taken. “This is the first time the essentially bourgeois world of art has belonged to the people. We need to make it count.”

Curiously, the bourgeois is still so eager to eat it up, perhaps even more enthralled with the mysterious artist than the rest of us. There is no denying that Banksy’s anonymity is just as important to the hype as his skill or the message he conveys. For over twenty years his identity has been kept secret by friends and faithful followers, who believe his elevation on the world stage has helped street art become a viable medium of art. Not knowing the when, how, or why behind Banksy adds a component of wonder other famous artists simply do not have. And as long as Banksy is succeeding, the opportunity for other street artists to succeed exists, too.

The effort Banksy may have made to render the art worthless has undoubtedly failed and backfired. After the shredding, there was debate whether “Girl With Balloon” was worth even more than it was before (while Banksy himself shredding his art may fetch a pretty penny, experts caution it may not work so well if you shred the piece yourself). The woman who bought the initial painting has expressed her desire to go through with her purchase of the first piece of auction art created in front of a live audience. The piece has been renamed, fittingly, to “Love is in the Bin,” now enshrined at Sotheby’s New Bond Street galleries for his fans to adore.

Perhaps the reaction will be the inspiration for his next plot to make his art “count” in the information era. The current political landscape and the renewed interest in his work may be a harbinger of more Banksy mischief to come. He certainly has a way of making an indelible impression, and it is doubtful he has nothing more to say.

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