The graffiti artist, known for his outlandish stunts, once again surprised the public.
For more than a decade, Banksy, an unidentified British street artist, has pushed the boundaries of how creativity and art are defined in an age of consumer culture. Although no one knows who Banksy really is, his simple and satirical art has sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions all over the world, and fans flock to walls decorated with his stringent stencilings.
Last Friday, Banksy’s most iconic painting, “Girl with Red Balloon,” was auctioned off for more than any of his work had previously sold for, at a whopping $1.4 million. Shortly after being sold, the frame started shredding the painting, leaving half of the canvas destroyed. Banksy has commented about this stunt on his Instagram account, indicating it was an indictment of the commodification of creativity.
Sotheby’s, the auction house that handled the sale of “Girl with Red Balloon,” is one of the largest art dealing companies in the world. Although the painting was displayed for auction in a frame rigged to shred the canvas after being remotely triggered, Sotheby’s claims they had no prior knowledge of Banksy’s plan. The head of contemporary art in Europe at Sotheby’s, Alex Branczik, commented that an artist famous for his graffiti work would never work hand-in-hand with an art establishment.
“Girl with Red Balloon” was first seen on a bridge on the streets of London in 2002, but has been distributed as a print since 2004. The image may initially appear to be a young girl reaching for a red balloon she lost as it floats away. However, it has also been interpreted as an image of the girl letting go of the balloon, releasing it into the sky. This deceivingly simple painting has been evaluated as a representation of lost innocence and even as a criticism of a society that pushes children to give up their innocence so early.
Banksy has turned his painting into a piece of performance art, taking the social critique that underscores almost all of his work to a new extreme. Shortly after initiating the shredding of “Girl with Red Balloon,” Banksy posted a picture of the shredded canvas on his Instagram with the comment, “Going, going, gone.”
A few hours later, he posted a video of himself building the frame “in case it was ever put up for auction,” along with a haunting Mikhail Bakunin quote (which Banksy attributed to Picasso): “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” This act of destruction forces viewers to consider the morality of putting a price on creativity and how auctioning off a work intended to criticize societal norms negates Banksy’s intentions as an artist.
There was debate over whether the sale of “Girl with Red Balloon” would still be valid or if the price would be renegotiated to be either higher or lower than the original $1.4 million. The transformation has gained the painting-turned-performance-art-piece global fame, but the anonymous female European buyer was able to go through with the purchase at the same price. She commented that she had ended up with her “own piece of art history,” which has been deemed the first piece to be created during an auction. Along with the confirmation of the sale, Banksy gave the work a new name, “Love is in the Bin,” to complete its transition to a radically new and innovative work of art.