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Banksy’s shredded Sotheby’s art was a rebuke of empty consumerism from a master

Banksy was trolling the art world long before he shredded his own painting.

Shocked onlookers watch as Banksy’s print Balloon Girl self-destructs
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Call him notorious, call him a legend, but there’s one thing you’ll never call Banksy — and that’s a sell-out.

On October 5 at a Sotheby’s auction, the elusive street artist pulled what might just be the ultimate of his many pranks when he somehow triggered the self-destruction of one of his paintings just after it sold for $1.4 million, tying the artist’s own auction record.

The moment — in which a shredder Banksy had apparently built into the frame around the painting suddenly activated, accompanied by a loud beeping alarm — was captured on video and immediately went viral on Saturday. In it, shocked and delighted Sotheby’s attendees gape as the shredder slowly shreds a print variant of Banksy’s famous 2002 mural Balloon Girl.

On Saturday, via Instagram, Banksy released his own short official video, which shows him — or at least someone in Banksy’s signature hoodie — mounting the shredder inside the painting frame, “in case it ever sold at auction.” The clip was deleted almost immediately, though of course copies promptly began to circulate the internet.

In a statement released by Sotheby’s following the shredding, Sotheby’s senior director Alex Branczik said, “It appears we just got Banksy-ed.”

But what exactly does getting “Banksy-ed” mean in this context?

To understand, we have to take a look at Banksy’s history of subversive, highly politicized artwork, which is often accompanied by pointed stunts — many of them conceived to undermine power structures and call attention to the superficiality of the world we live in.

It seems ironic that now, post-shredding, Banksy’s art piece may be worth even more money than it was before the auction hammer went down, thanks to the tremendous viral moment his stunt engendered. But knowing Banksy, that’s all a part of the point he’s trying to make about the way popularity bestows value in an age of commodification.

Banksy never met an establishment he couldn’t troll

Active since the mid-’90s, Banksy gradually became a legend among street artists — and then a legend among all artists — thanks to his distinctive stenciled designs, his brilliant sociopolitical satire, and his ninja-like skills at evasion.

Beginning around the turn of the millennium, works like Balloon Girl, Yellow Lines Flower, and Bomb Hugger would pop up overnight on walls in towns across the UK, challenging the conventional wisdom about the worthless value of “graffiti.” As respect grew for Banksy’s skill, and for his apparent ability to come and go without detection, so did the valuation of his works.

Banksy has arguably done more than any other contemporary artist to change the way street art is regarded by the artistic establishment. But while Banksy has gained so much respect in the art world that his works now, ironically, sell for millions, his basic outsider stance has never changed.

Many of his guerrilla art pieces, as well as his lavish pranks, stunts, and installations, have been crafted as subversions of traditionalist approaches to art, reacting against the political establishment and calling attention to the mechanisms by which these traditions and power structures are upheld. And like the best tricksters, his stunts undermine the cultural context that allowed them to happen in the first place.

Take, for example, Dismaland, his huge interactive 2015 art exhibit that satirized Disneyland by turning it into a wasteland — kind of like Fyre Festival for the kid in all of us. As visitors to the exhibit wandered through the pop-up theme park, they were greeted by “specially trained surly and unhelpful staff,” and a wonderland of surreal, dystopian excess.

One of the thrilling water attractions at Dismaland.

Then there’s his famous 2008 mural One Nation Under CCTV, which depicted a hooded graffiti artist whitewashing the piece’s title onto a wall as he’s filmed by a uniformed police officer. The mural’s content drew added significance from its location, positioned right next to a wall-mounted cadre of real closed-circuit cameras.

Banksy, you see, had received permission from the Royal Mail to erect a piece of artwork on the wall, sight unseen. So not only was the piece itself (which has since been painted over) a direct nose-thumbing to British surveillance culture, but the process by which the work was installed drew attention to the impossibility of Big Brother ever being able to fully surveil and curtail a determined proletariat.

At this point you might be side-eyeing the idea that an artist whose works now sell for millions is such a prole and egalitarian. But Banksy has always resisted the commercialization of his work — and when he has turned a tidy profit, he’s habitually done so by directly critiquing, and sometimes implicating, consumers of his own art.

Banksy is interested in critiquing the commodification of art — which increasingly includes a critique of virality

In keeping with his anti-establishment bent, Banksy’s most consistent and scathing critiques have long been directed at the commercialism of art. He’s famously used elaborate stunts, like the one he pulled on Friday, to drive this point home.

For example, in 2008, he used his art-world influence and risked his closely guarded anonymity (though it’s generally thought to be less closely held these days) to boost the career of fellow artist Thierry Guetta — who might optimistically be called the Tommy Wiseau of street art. The famous documentary Banksy made of the event, Exit Through the Gift Shop, implied that he’d done all of it to essentially troll the public and comment on the shallow nature of commercialized art by inflating the value of Guetta’s plainly derivative style.

In 2013, Banksy caused a sensation when he set up a stall in Central Park selling unlabeled art prints to passersby for $60 — the same prints that would have fetched top price in an auction house if they’d first been authenticated as a Banksy original. Although Banksy’s pop-up art stand held works valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, crowds passed by without a second glance, and Banksy only made $420 the entire day. The stunt served to highlight the translucence of imposed “value” in the art world, as well as to disrupt ideas about the “ordinariness” and public nature of art.

Essentially, Banksy likes to produce works that critique their own commodification. But he also seems to be increasingly critiquing the public’s attitudes toward art, and its complicity within the system of that commodification. The Dismaland project implicated the “tourists” for their enjoyment of the experience as much as it implicated Disney itself. With the Central Park experiment, the entire experience — the pop-up art stand and the art sold within it, as well as the night-and-day opposing responses from the public both before and after the reveal that Banksy was the perpetrator — became a piece of art.

With these exhibitions, Banksy is also increasingly using his work to explore and critique the idea of virality, and how it influences the perceived value of a work in the minds of both the public and the artistic establishment.

To understand more about this, I turned to Zardulu, the anonymous street artist who’s gained a cult following for staging viral moments, often involving animals. Zardulu is known for espousing a belief that pranks, hoaxes, and the manufacturing of virality are all part of the creation of modern-day mythology. Her current debut art show presents several of these moments through the framework of mythos in order to explore what myth-making means in a contemporary context.

“Banksy is in a unique position that he can simply release a piece of work and it goes viral,” Zardulu said, “the same way Kim Kardashian can tweet a selfie and it gets more attention than the overthrow of a foreign government.”

“But this piece is different,” she adds, referring to the Balloon Girl auction. “He wanted to create a viral moment, a viral video, and he obviously wanted us to ask whether the piece is now worth more or less now that it’s been part of a viral moment.”

Zardulu sees Banksy as extending a tradition of pranks as an art form that began in the 1960s with Situationism, a small but highly influential movement of avant-garde political reactionaries and artists that sprang up in Paris in the 1960s. Situationists held a complicated interplay of beliefs about art, culture, and capitalism, but their main thesis was the idea that human behavior isn’t natural, but rather defined by one’s situation — and that a “situation” could be carefully crafted and manipulated.

Situationist artists believed that creating “situations” was itself art, and this found resonance in everything from politics to punk music to the development of postmodernism — and now, in situations like the one Banksy has just created.

“For whatever reason, [Situationists] didn’t ever do anything to physically substantiate their performances,” Zardulu said. “So when I started to do my work, I always thought it was important to have a component represent the performances. It’s part of the declaration I made in my manifesto. My manifesto also specifically refers to the environment we’re in today, that we can create these fabricated viral moments, and that there’s something unique and special about that. So, Banksy has really done exactly that. Created a viral moment, and the object that physically substantiates it is the frame and the shredded painting.”

So is Zardulu influenced by Banksy? Aren’t all street artists influenced by Banksy?

“To a certain degree, everything we encounter influences us, consciously or unconsciously. I can’t imagine there’s a street artist who hasn’t seen a work by Banksy,” Zardulu said. “I don’t have a Banksy coffee table book or anything, but a lot of his work has put a smile on my face.”

It seems clear that the last thing Banksy would want any of us doing is buying a Banksy coffee table book — but it also seems clear that he’s more than happy to sell us one, if only so he can draw attention to our consumerism.

We might say, then, that getting “Banksy-ed” means to have the tools of power, situational manipulation, and capitalist exploitation of wealth turned against the establishment — and against the complicit public who prop up the establishment — in ways that simultaneously draw attention to those tools and undermine their use.

And that’s how we got from rabble-rousing wall graffiti to a $1.4 million painting being sliced and diced at Sotheby’s. It’s not just Banksy who created the phenomenon that is Banksy — it’s all of us, and he’s determined not to let us forget it.