Banksy’s art-shredding stunt was fishier than a tin of anchovies

But as performance art it is undoubtedly his masterpiece.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Oh how we laughed. The self-shredding of Banksy’s celebrated Girl With a Balloon picture, seconds after it was sold at Sotheby’s for £1.04m, was, apparently, a typically irreverent response by the arch iconoclast to the over-inflated, money-driven contemporary art world – less ballooning than mooning. For those outside that world there was a delicious frisson in seeing a million pounds reduced to fettuccine and a battery-farm’s worth of egg on the faces of the art hawkers and speculators gathered in the room.  

Banksy released a video shortly afterwards showing how he had hidden a row of scalpel blades in the frame ready to activate this theatrical moment of auto-destruction. “It appears we just got Banksy-ed,” said Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, good-naturedly, as if he were merely the victim of a Jeremy Beadle prank.

The whole stunt though was fishier than a tin of anchovies. Who consigned the picture to auction and who was the buyer? “A few years ago, I secretly built a shredder into a painting,” confessed Banksy, but no mention of how he kept the batteries topped up for so long or of how the shredder was set in motion. And why did the blades in his video point the wrong way? Did Sotheby’s really not take the painting out of its frame to examine it before selling it? Why was only half the picture shredded? Why was it hung near the art handlers’ entrance in the saleroom so they could rush in and remove it with impressive haste?

Just as fishy in many ways is how a work by Banksy could be worth so much money in the first place. He is not a fine artist at all but rather a graphic artist – think road signs with wit. See his images once, get the gag, and there’s nothing more to be gleaned from them on subsequent viewings – the opposite of what proper art does. There are people out there who think his pictures are representative of our times, that he’s a unique voice who will be heard in decades’ time, and that his work will appreciate in value. Still, a fool and his money...

There has already been much wafty speculation that this elaborate gag has already increased the value of Banksy’s works by as much as a half with reports of owners of his prints taking a Stanley knife to them to bump up their prices. It all adds to the gaiety of the nation.

Banksy though is merely the latest in a long line of destructive artists. The young Michelangelo, when living in the Medici household, fashioned a sculpture from snow to impress his patrons and then melt; Monet once destroyed as many as 30 of his water-lily paintings because he was unhappy with them; in 1954 Jasper Johns went one further and destroyed all the unsold art he had made to that date; Robert Rauschenberg cadged a painting from Willem de Kooning in order to erase it; and Gustav Metzger made a series of paintings that he then sprayed with acid.

And then there was the 2004 fire at the Momart storage facility which, to the delight of many, saw works by Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin go up in smoke. On the other hand, the 1734 fire that destroyed the Alcazar palace in Madrid and works by Titian, Velázquez, Bosch, Raphael, Rubens, Tintoretto and Leonardo delighted no one.

Nevertheless, Banksy’s expensive joke (even if it is not clear who paid for it) made for an excellent piece of performance art: undoubtedly his masterpiece. 

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.