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When Banksy shredded his artwork the moment after it sold at auction, he left many questions unanswered. What are we to make of the stunt? And subscribe to the new PBS Digital Studios series Two Cents:

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A few weeks ago, a work by British street artists Banksy went up for auction at Sotheby's London.  Moments after the auctioneer banged his gavel, announcing its sale for over $1.3 million, a beep sounded and the canvas began to fall through the bottom of the frame and emerged in shreds on the other side.  Just after, Banksy posted a picture of it with the caption "Going, going, gone..." and then followed up with a video showing how he instlled a shredder in the frame in case it ever went up for auction.  

Sotheby's claim they had no idea this was going to happen and had "been Banksied" and the buyer was anonymous, which is common in auctions.  After a week, when media conjecture had run dry over who knew about it and would the buyer have to pay for it, Sotheby's put out a press release explaining that what actually happened was that a new work by Banksy had been created at the auction, one that's been authenticated by the artist and given the new title "Love Is In the Bin".  After that, Banksy released a director's cut explaining that in rehearsals, the painting shredded fully every time, including some vertical video to firmly place the rehearsals in the recent past, proving both that he's a master manipulator and that his word cannot be trusted.

Okay, but let's take a closer look at what this work actually is.  Banksy first painted the image of a child reaching out toward a red heart-shaped balloon in London in 2002, this one, with the inscription "There is always hope".  Other versions were made around the city, but none of the original murals remain, because this, like most of Banksy's work, was unsanctioned street art made without permission, for the public to enjoy and for property owners or city government to paint over or protect as they see fit.

Individuals can and have tried to remove and resell his public art, but for the most part, Banksy's work has been fleeting and free and has actively planned to be that way by its creator.  The heart balloon appeared alone in 2013 with bandages in Brooklyn and also with kids standing on a pile of guns at a Central Park art stall on sale for $60.  

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In 2014, he reworked the "Girl With Balloon" image in support of the With Syria campaign, explaining, "The red balloon carries the girl above and away from the chaos below, beyond the burnt-out buildings and bullet potted walls."  Also in 2014, Justin Bieber had the image tattooed on his arm.  A version with the Union Jack balloon surfaced in 2017, in a print Banksy tried to give away to UK citizens in some constituencies if they voted against the conservative party, but since it's illegal to accept a gift in return for a vote, the offer was rescinded and a few days later, he posted this.  In a 2017 poll, "Girl With Balloon" beat out both this painting by JMW Turner and this one by David Hockney to claim the title of the UK's favorite artwork.  

This is all to say that by the time the work in question arrived at auction, it was a well-loved and widely recognizable image, estimated to sell for as much as about $400,000 USD.  The auction report shares that it's not a multiple but a unique work, made in 2006 with Banksy's signature method of stenciled spray paint, but this time, on canvas instead of on a wall, or as print on paper.  It was authenticated by Pest Control, the handling service that acts on the artist's behalf, and authenticates his work.

Sotheby's claims it was acquired directly from the artist by the unnamed present owner the year it was made, following a show he organized of his work in an LA warehouse and it came in that gilded frame.  Ahh, the frame, which Sotheby's states was "chosen by Banky himself".  Gold frames are one of the artist's favorite motifs.  In conjunction with that same LA warehouse show, he released a print that clearly expresses his dubiousness of the auction process and even presented it in a ridiculous gold frame, and for his 2009 exhibition at the Bristol Museum, Banksy mixed his works in with the museum's collection, many of them in period appropriate frames, helping his art blend in, at least sort of.

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One of these was a gold frame laid over a concrete slab with one stick figure asking "Does anyone really take this kind of art seriously?" and another replying "Never underestimate the power of a big gold frame."  A year later, this image appeared on a wall in San Francisco, clearly demonstrating the uneasy situation Banksy has found himself in as his profile has risen and more and more people try to benefit off of unauthorized sales and exhibitions of his work.

Now, I find it unlikely that no one at Sotheby's knew what was gonna happen with this big gold frame, or that anyone inspecting it would find nothing suspicious about it.  I also find it unconvincing that Banksy's video showing his frame construction was made back in 2006 or that it's coincidental that it was the last lot in the auction.  Banksy very well could have been the prior owner.  Sotheby's doesn't have to disclose that information.

Regardless, what happened indicates very strongly that people really do take this kind of art seriously.  They probably would have even if it hadn't been in the gold frame, but they're certainly taking it even more seriously now that the frame has revealed itself to be an integral part of the work.  

When he posted his video, Banksy included the quote by Picasso "The urge to destroy is also a creative urge" and Banksy certainly isn't the first artist to incorporate destruction in art making.  Man Ray made his first "Indestructible Object" in 1923: an altered metronome that the viewer is instructed to smash when they've reached "the limit of endurance".  Robert Rauschenberg is famous for his 1953 "Erased (?~5:37) De Kooning Drawing" and Niki De Saint Phalle for her 1961 exhibition in which she asked visitors to fire at her relief paintings with a 22 caliber rifle.

There are many ways a work of art comes into being, be it an additive process, a subtractive process, one that must unfold in space and time, or one that's immaterial, not existing until the moment it's performed and then disappearing as soon as it's over.  

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"Girl With Balloon" was one artwork, and now it's another that came into being through a public action but which still very much has a material presence, because the object wasn't destroyed.  It's only half shredded and since it was canvas going through, the remaining fringe is pretty stable.  I can totally see an art packer carefully crafting a crate that will keep it safe and sound until its next exhibition.  It really only got more interesting when shredded.

Additioned prints or paintings of Banksy's images, even if sanctioned by the artists, are all right, but they certainly don't have the subversive power or presence of his art made in and for the public arena.  His gilt frames had served the purpose of emphasizing the artificiality of putting these images meant for the public into private hands, but now one of those frames has revealed itself to be an agent of insurrection, however incomplete its act of destruction, and the art world loves being questioned and criticized.  It's weird, it's almost like a kind of high class negging which they've even given their own academic sounding term: institutional critique is what they call the art that actively critiques the structures it lives in and that make it possible, like museums or galleries or in this case, an auction house.

It became a thing after institutions started to collect more ephemoral and performative works made by artists in the '60s and '70s.  By artists strategically trying to avoid the traditional spaces for at, but no matter, museums were happy to matriculate these evasive works and include them in their histories of art, and in many cases, people proved willing to buy them, too, and so it's not at all surprising when something as straightforwardly material as this work by Banksy can fetch such a high price at auction, and it's not surprising either when its collector is willing to accept its transformed and likely even more valuable state, especially now that post-action it embodies some aspect of the subversion that makes Banksy, Banksy.

It can actually live more comfortably in an exhibition now than it could before, hanging half in and out of its frame, telling its own history of Banksy shenanigans, but there's also another important element of this work that we might overlooking and that's the publicity and press that has swirled around it, which I'd argue is as much a part of the work as what went down at Sotheby's.

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Banksy is brilliant at attracting attention and generating controversy.  His anonymity is part of that, and something I hope never goes away.  With this work, he draws attention to the auction process in general, which is followed closely only by an extremely tiny community.  Most of us see headlines about multi-million dollar sales, feel nauseous, and then move on.  The auction system in its current form survives in part because most people aren't paying attention to it.  It's a highly efficient way for the international uber-rich to buy and trade valuable assets.

Sure, some are in the game for good reasons, but Banksy's action has mae us all more aware of a few key facts.  People are willing to pay ungodly sums of money for art these days.  With rare exceptions, none of that money goes to the artists.  These are secondary sales, meaning one owner is selling to another.  Most artists are completely powerless when those work goes to auction.  To take back some of that power, you might have to get your hands a little dirty, like when Damien Hirst orchestrated his own direct to auction sale in 2008 and like this recent stunt by Banksy, which may or may not have been executed with the cooperation of Sotheby's.  

Whether or not we assume what Banksy says is true, which we really shouldn't, "Love is in the Bin" still reminds us of the convoluted power structures that vie for what art and which artists get anointed as important and valuable.  We like Banksy's work because it helps us see the gross power imbalances all around us, even if they are imperfect and temporary and corruptable by outside forces or perhaps we love them more because of those things.  

Banksy may seem like less of the pure, countercultural rebel he once was, but I, for one, appreciate these recent attemps at affecting change, however small, from the inside, or at least with one foot in and one foot out, able to capture money from sales that will happen with or without his blessing, and perhaps apply those proceeds to new work in the future.

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I, for one, will be looking out for some very public $1.3 million expenditures from Banksy in the not-too-distant future.  I'll leave it to him to surprise me.

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