Shredding Banksy (ctd.)

October 15 2018

Sound: TAN

The latest Art Newspaper podcast discusses the Banksy shredding, with Anny Shaw and Ben Luke; it's well worth a listen. As you may know by now, the work has been re-authenticated by Banksy, and is now titled 'Love is in the Bin'. The successful bidder has agreed to pay for the work. Sotheby's have put it on display again, and say that Banksy didn't destroy a work of art, but created one. Everyone is happy. But as Ben Luke observes, this undermines the idea that Banksy was trying to stick two fingers up to the art market. It was always, as I theorised last week, about the money.

The TAN podcast interviews one of the underbidders, Jonathan Cheung from the Maddox Gallery. He says he bid on the picture because it was voted the UK's 'most popular image'. As I've said before, that poll (designed to sell Samsung TVs) was just a confection. But in this smoke and mirrors market, facts aren't as important as headlines. Banksy must be eternally grateful to Samsung. 

Naturally, the question of value is discussed; is the shredded work now worth 'more'? Jonathan Cheung isn't sure it is, but Ben Luke is. For what it's worth, I agree with Ben; whatever the ethical and market questions that this whole affair has triggered, there's no doubting that the stunt has been a triumphant success. Art historically, I really can see this work becoming established as something that stands the test of time. It's infinitely more interesting than a spot painting. 

But I still think all those questions are worth asking. Ben Luke asks the key one; was this really a work from 2006? Jonathan Cheung says that for him, part of the appeal of the painting at Sotheby's was the fact that it was a unique work - thought to be the only 'one of one' of Girl with Balloon - and from relatively early in the genesis of the composition. So the date matters.

But since it is now widely suggested that (as first reported by AHN) the picture was consigned by his publicist, Jo Brooks, and that it was authenticated by the artist (or his representatives), to what extent can we believe the whole story? It was interesting to hear in the podcast that Sotheby's say the provenance of the painting was true to the best of their knowledge. In other words, they don't know for sure either. 

The answer is we just have to take it all on trust. In an excellent article, Jan Dalley explores this aspect further in the FT

With work by living artists, the trust system is bolstered by the simple fact of the artist’s say-so. But what does an apparently harmless stunt such as Banksy’s do to this deeper system? That iteration of the “Girl with Balloon” was estimated at £200,000-£300,000 because, we were told, it was not one of the thousands of cheap prints of that very well-known image but a unique work made in 2006, and dedicated in the artist’s hand. We believed that — as did the buyer — because Banksy and Pest Control said so.

But if the work was booby-trapped, essentially a giant prank, which bits of it were “genuine”? Why should the work have been the work, if the frame wasn’t the frame? Never mind that a new artwork has been created, and that the lucky buyer finds herself in possession of a piece that’s more valuable because of its notoriety: start pulling a single loose thread of this trust system and things unravel fast.

Will the high end contemporary market unravel fast? It's too early to say, but it seems to me that there is something about the opacity and remoteness of the high end contemporary art market which is similar to the pre-2008, under-regulated financial market. People are paying a lot of money for things they don't entirely understand, and cannot always get reliable information about. As long as the prices keep going up, everything's ok.

Will Banksy's trick cause people to ask the probing questions that might make a crash more likely? Was that his design? Or was he wanting to cash in before the balloon goes up, to borrow his own imagery? The clever thing about Banksy, is that it's likely both. 

Finally, there's a quote from Banksy's 'spokesperson' in The Guardian, denying that Sotheby's had any knowledge of what would happen during the sale:

A spokesperson on behalf of Banksy said: “I can categorically tell you there was no collusion between the artist and the auction house in any shape or form.

"The painting had 27 confirmed bidders on the night. A reputable auction house would never encourage their valued clients to bid on something they knew would be destroyed, their credibility would never recover. Banksy was as surprised as anyone when the painting made it past their security systems.”

Was this spokesperson Jo Brooks, the possible consignor? We mere punters aren't allowed to know. Smoke and mirrors.

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