Banksy and the shredded work, when contemporary art becomes a caricature of itself

Banksy and his "Love is in the bin," the work destroyed during an auction at Sotheby's: stroke of genius or publicity stunt? Some food for thought.

The never-too-much lamented Tommaso Labranca, whose passing has been forgotten at the speed of light, had little appreciation for the figure of Banksy. Labranca had devoted a chapter of his last book, Vraghinaroda, to the British street artist, renaming him “Banksyawn” with appreciative wordplay, and calling him “the most boring phenomenon in the world.” “He represents no exception,” the Milanese writer wrote, “since all contemporary art stars are boring, predictable.” And for Labranca, Banksy stands to art a bit like Ariana Grande stands to music: “overrated both, annoying both.”

Now, the occasion of the exhibition in Germany of Love is in the bin, the title given to the “Girl with the Balloon” cut up during a sale at Sotheby’s last October, provides a useful cue to go back to those autumn days when the whole world was literally captured by the British graffiti artist’s stunt: and however one wants to think about Tommaso Labranca’s judgment, and regardless of whether or not one is a lover of Banksy’s work, we could all agree that, at least in Italy, there has been an almost complete lack of truly alternative points of view on that affair, and there has been a struggle to find articles in the press that strayed from the chorus of admiring admirers of the device Banksy inserted into the frame to turn the unsuspecting little girl into a pile of noodles. Parody revivals aside (some of which have, in fact, returned us to the image of the Balloon girl inside kneading machines), Banksy’s contraption has garnered positive opinions almost everywhere: There are also those who saw in it a sort of protest against the commodification of art, with the little girl who, wishing not to be transformed into an object of exchange, decides to break herself into pieces in order to escape from the frame (although, according to many analysts, after having undergone such a treatment, the work may have experienced a considerable increase in its economic value, since from a canvas replicated several times it became a unique piece: in short, if it was a protest against reification, perhaps it may not have succeeded so well).

Love is in the bin di Banksy
Love is in the bin by Banksy

It will therefore be useful, in order to better frame the Banksy phenomenon and the extent of the episode that stunned everyone last October, to start again from a couple of contributions that appeared one in Italy, the other in England, which have the merit of advancing keys that can help draw alternative conclusions about what occurred at Sotheby’s. In an article that appeared in the newspaper Popmag just hours after the sale at the London auction house, journalist Salvatore Patriarca developed some of the arguments put forward by Banksy’s supporters and ended up overturning them: as to the fact that it would have been an act of artistic and economic destruction, we could assert that the destruction has in itself its own significant value and therefore produced an unprecedented artistic value (so much so that the buyer later stated that she was quite happy to have bought the work, since it would now become “a piece of art history”). And the same is true of its economic value: there has been no destruction; on the contrary, it has been said that for some, the value of the work may have experienced a mighty increase due to the fact that it has become unique. As for the alleged charge of capitalist negation that the work would carry with it, Patriarca opposes the argument that for the buyer there was no harm at all, primarily because any loss would have had little impact on the account of those who generally have economic resources sufficient to procure a million-pound Banksy canvas, and especially because the work may now have a much higher concrete value. In the end, like it or not, the work was not destroyed in its entirety: it was simply transformed. And as is usually the case with any object that does not end up completely destroyed, Love is in the bin also has its own monetary value and price.

As for the practical implications of what happened, it is interesting to refer to the article written by Thomas Marks for Apollo Magazine. It is certainly fascinating, the British journalist pointed out, to consider the whole gimmick as a debacle for an unsuspecting Sotheby’s, which even in an official note stated that it had been “banksy” and that the incident was “unexpected.” One has to reckon with the implications of the act, however: if indeed the auction house had been unaware of the elusive Banksy’s plots, Marks pointed out, the consequences for its businesses would have been highly negative, because not really knowing that inside a frame hides a device that destroys a work would lead to a necessary drop in consumer confidence, a rapid rise in insurance costs, and more than immediate scrutiny of internal control systems and security procedures. And conversely, if Sotheby’s had been aware of the idea (which seems more likely to Marks), it still would not have been immune from criticism for deliberately making a mockery of its clientele. But at the end of the day, it matters little: inside a paper shredder did not end up a rare Renaissance paper or a precious seventeenth-century altarpiece, but a Banksy canvas, an occurrence that alone is enough to derecognize the whole thing as a simple prank and lead us to evaluate the incident solely in terms of the publicity it provided the artist and auction house. And it is the reason why Sotheby’s will not suffer any consequences (nor will any of its employees be fired, indeed: it is presumable that there were promotions). “This was,” Marks concluded, “an unexpected coup de théâtre, but of the kind we should all expect from Banksy by now.”

The only consequence is that, in this bailamme, contemporary art (or at least that which is deemed or perceived as such) has come off as a caricature of itself: exactly what it does not need. And Banksy has, if anything, gone down in the news as a clever prankster, as a troll over-fed by the media (especially the generalist media), as an up-to-date producer of content good for grabbing likes on social networks, as an intelligent communicator and showman, rather than as an artist. Let it be understood that, of course, such characteristics still make him a noteworthy character: a joke that has the whole world debating for weeks, in its own way, attests to the fact that there is a high dose of ingenuity at its base. But in the end, even all of this carries little weight: at the end of the day, each of the lead actors certainly got an excellent return from the operation.

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