How Banksy is a major contributor to consumer culture

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Over the weekend, Banksy, the now-infamous street artist, was featured prominently in the news. This time, it was for a stunt he pulled at a Sotheby’s art auction. On Oct. 5, his “Girl with Balloon” was the last item on the auction’s agenda.

Many consider this work — spray paint and acrylic on canvas — the quintessential Banksy piece. A young girl stretches her hand toward a red, heart-shaped balloon that is just beyond the reach of her grasping fingers. The dystopian nature of the piece is a commonality throughout Banksy’s portfolio, which takes on prominent social issues such as the dangers of consumerism.

At the fall of the gavel, “Girl with Balloon” sold for 1,042,000 pounds ($1.4 million), tying a record set in 2008 for the highest sale price in pounds for a work by the artist. In the moments immediately after the announcement of the sale, the canvas slowly began to descend through the bottom of the frame; it emerged on the other side in strips.

The auction’s attendees quickly realized that the work had been shredded by a device implanted in its frame. When the frame’s machinery appeared to stop, the painting was suspended half under the glass and half exposed.

Banksy posted an explanatory video on Instagram the day after the “happening,” which is a term used for a performative event that is itself supposed to be taken as art. In the video, the artist explained that he “secretly built a shredder” into the frame of the work several years ago “in case it was ever put up for auction.”

A photo posted previously by Banksy, showing the moment when shocked audience members turned to see the painting being pushed through the frame, is captioned “Going, going gone…”

This caption summarizes the sentiment that Banksy was aiming to achieve: an ignominious awakening for the world of art collection. Yet several notable art experts have speculated that this event will greatly increase the value of “Girl with Balloon.” The director of modern and contemporary art at Heritage Auctions told Money magazine, “I think it’s going to double the value.”

This then begs the question: Is it possible for Banksy to insert himself into the narrative of revolutionary art while preserving his image as an artist who floats, unidentified and untouched, above the melee of the consumer art world?

This question can be answered more successfully after considering Banksy’s career as a whole. The English artist first began his practice in Bristol in the 1980s. During this time, he settled on his now-classic stencil graffiti approach.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s and after a foundational move to London that Banksy started to become a household name across England for the way he attacked the rampant globalization exemplified by brands such as Nike and Tesco, a groceries and merchandise retailer. One work from this period depicts two children pledging allegiance to a waving plastic Tesco bag that a third child has visibly hoisted up a pole.

Banksy exploded onto the international art scene around this time when he infiltrated Tate Modern, the Louvre Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. In each museum, he surreptitiously hung his own artworks on the walls next to famous masterpieces. At the Louvre, he left an image of the “Mona Lisa” with a grotesquely simplified smiley face.

This marked the beginning of Banksy’s overt criticism of art-viewing as it exists today. Despite the fact that he has staged multiple institutional exhibitions around the world, the artist continues to make the claim that he somehow desires to exist outside the praxis of art consumerism.

In an Aug. 15 Instagram post, Banksy displayed text messages with an unnamed person. The messages identified an exhibition of Banksy’s work that had not been sanctioned by the artist that was occuring in Moscow. One of Banksy’s responses stated, “You know it’s got nothing to do with me right? I don’t charge people to see my art unless there’s a fairground wheel.”

Yet the idea that the character Banksy exists to create art for the masses is corrupted by the works he creates and the execution of his notorious “pranks.” He has also exhibited his works in areas that are already inundated with art and culture and considered elitist spaces, such as London and Los Angeles.

There is also speculation that — based on estimates of book royalties, pieces he sells through his art agency Pest Control, and the profits of “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” a documentary that he directed — Banksy could be worth more than $20 million.

So sure, he doesn’t often charge people to see his art. But he doesn’t have to. The video he posted on Instagram of the happening accumulated more than 11 million views in four days.

Although Banksy seems to credit himself with conscientiously critiquing the modern art world, the bottom line is that he is a major contributor to high-end consumer culture. And his pranks, often set in elitist spaces, allow highbrow members of the artistic community to feel that they are part of the fun.

Contact Keats Iwanaga at [email protected].