“Going once, going twice, going three times… sold!”
Everyone was happy and content. The auction concluded with the classic bang of the gavel. It was October 5, 2018. That night, Sotheby’s auction house in London had put up for sale a copy of Girl with Balloon by Banksy, one of the most revered and enigmatic artists alive on the planet.
After a bidding process that seemed endless, an anonymous collector was awarded the painting (by phone) for $1.4 million. All of a sudden, the canvas began to self-destruct. In front of the eyes of members of an elite world, despised by the mysterious English street artist, a shredder hidden in the frame (activated by remote control) embarrassed the entire institution. Live and in real-time, it began to devour the prize, a painting in aerosol and acrylic showing a girl trying to reach a heart-shaped balloon, which appeared on a wall on Great Eastern Street in London in 2006 and ten years later was voted England’s favorite work of art.
“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” Banksy wrote on Instagram hours later. In that post, the British graffiti artist, whose identity is unknown, revealed the moment he had planned the performance.
The horror and embarrassment at what had appeared to be a tragedy were soon forgotten. After the shock, the gears in the capitalist machine began to turn again: “Banksy didn’t destroy an artwork in the auction. He created one,” said Alex Branczik, head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s in Europe. It was, according to the manager, “the first work in history ever created during a live auction.”
Semi-destroyed, the piece that was retitled Love Is in the Bin immediately increased in value thanks to intervention and the spectacle: rebellion is also for sale. Experts speculated that its value could double after the destruction.
It didn’t take long for doubts to emerge. What if it was a marketing ploy, an act in which auction house workers were accomplices? Public relations specialist Andrew Bloch points out that Sotheby’s had a duty to inspect the work before the auction.
Performance art or a hoax, the incident exposed a current phenomenon: how contemporary artists seek to attract the world’s spotlight to sell their works for millions of dollars through the most extraordinary marketing strategies.
Banksy, Damian Hirst, Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic, Takashi Murakami, Anish Kapoor, Ai Weiwei, and other contemporary artists have surrounded themselves with professional PR machinery. They’ve become brands, whose images are as important for them as they are for other multinationals. In a hyper-stimulated market where the ultimate test is the one for attention, they’re part of a generation of art marketers.
Until not so long ago, and with few exceptions, being an artist was synonymous with being poor. The most revered painters and sculptors in art history became so only after death. Doménikos Theotokópoulos, known as El Greco, created great works for the Spanish royal family in the 17th century, but in his later years, he became the object of ridicule and died poor in 1614.
Around the same time, Rembrandt van Rijn (the most important painter in Dutch history) spent the money he earned on women and drink. When his wife’s inheritance ran out, he sold his house and belongings. Consumed by debt, he died in obscurity and poverty in 1669.
The most famous case is that of the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. He sold only one painting during his entire career. Overwhelmed by a lack of money and mental illness, he died in 1890 believing himself to be an artistic failure.
Today, on the other hand, there are billionaire artists who are as famous as movie and television stars. They rub shoulders with kings and princes, sleep in mansions and luxury hotels, and fly on private jets.
There’s a reason for this: art is one of the favorite investments of the rich. Art works are part of the market economy, the endless battle between supply and demand. They’re consumer goods with as much value as or more than government bonds and gold bars.
The value of pieces by famous artists such as Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Jackson Pollock continues to climb. Their prices are inflated by the bids of bankers and anonymous tycoons looking to accumulate art works and for their cities to have a contemporary art center that functions as a magnet for visitors.
In the last 30 years, contemporary art (produced by living artists) went from generally being seen as a joke in bad taste to becoming something respected and revered in the world. The business has grown like crazy. In 2019, price database Artprice revealed that the contemporary art market had generated $1.8 billion in turnover from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019, the third-best performance in auction history.
Previously, artwork buyers were found only in the United States and Europe. But now they can also be found in China, India, and Russia. And this has had an impact: the art world is sustained by works and performances aimed at the consumption of mega-millionaires, such as advertising mogul Charles Saatchi.
Major museums have changed their character. They try to combine classical art with amusement park spectacle and political activism, calling into question the conventional limits of taste and decency with works meant to provoke and shock.
The Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Tate Modern in London seek to leave the visitor in a state of bewilderment. This happened with the famous installation by showman Damien Hirst titled The Physical Impossibilities of Death in the Mind of Someone Living: a huge four-meter-long shark suspended in a transparent formaldehyde tank suggesting that we’re just passing through this life. With this and other animal works preserved in formaldehyde and paintings of colorful circles produced in a series, Hirst has a license to print money.
Interestingly, a urinal was responsible for these transformations in art. In 1917, Frenchman Marcel Duchamp provoked a real revolution. With his sculpture Fountain, he declared that artists, stirred by intuition and intelligence, should be in charge of determining what was a work of art. The artist’s task was not to generate something aesthetically pleasing but to distance himself from the world and to try to generate meaning through paintings, sculptures, or performances.
The walls of cities are canvases for the artist known as Banksy. His satirical stencils denounce injustices, the decline of capitalism, an obsession with security, and a lack of equality and empathy. Criticism of authority has been his trademark. Revered and reviled, he avoids the cameras. And little is known about him: mystery is his main marketing strategy.
He hates corporations, but he sells T-shirts and postcards. Banksy himself is a lucrative global brand: he sells his works for millions to collectors and auction houses through his company Pest Control Office. As demonstrated by his performance Love Is in the Bin, not even the most cynical anti-system artist escapes the system.