When a Banksy painting self-destructed at a Sotheby’s auction last week, the public responded with glee. Even the auctioneer seemed giddy, calling it “a brilliant Banksy moment.”
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A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on Oct 6, 2018 at 10:09am PDT
If the public shredding of Girl With Balloon was a condemnation of the art market, as Banksy implied in a video posted on Instagram, the criticism has been as acute as a pat on the back. The art market will not change in any material way as a result of his prank, and the painting (which gaveled for $1.4 million) will probably be more valuable in its neatly shredded state. Paradoxically Girl With Balloon fails as an institutional critique because institutional critique is Banksy’s métier. The market for his work derives from his antagonism toward the market.
But that doesn’t mean that Girl With Balloon is artistically inconsequential. Through the act of annihilation, the painting deploys tactics that have driven art since the early 20th century.
The essential forerunner is Dada, the movement that metastasized the self-destructive tendencies of World War I into anti-art. Although Dada is often framed as institutional critique – leveled against all institutions indiscriminately – the aesthetic qualities of anti-art cannot be ignored. By rebelliously making collages from trash on the street, Kurt Schwitters discovered a new visual language, as did Jean Arp with collages made by chance. Art had to be broken in order to get remade in terms suited to modern times.
Marcel Duchamp took breakage to an even greater extreme with The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, a painting on glass that he labored over for nearly a decade before declaring it “definitively unfinished”. Several years later, in 1927, the glass was accidentally shattered while the work was in transit. Duchamp carefully repaired it without trying to hide the damage, which he accepted as part of the image, and on the basis of which he finally declared the work complete. Already famous for his Readymades – everyday objects transformed into art by decree – Duchamp summarily transformed his most hands-on art object into a readymade assisted by negligence, escalating the ongoing Dada assault on conventional artistic skill while simultaneously showing the aesthetic power of wreckage.
However no artwork has deployed the self-destructive engine of Dada more deliberately than Homage to New York, a kinetic sculpture exhibited by the neo-Dadaist Jean Tinguely in 1960. Made out of materials salvaged from a junkyard – ranging from a go-kart to a pianola – the spectacularly awkward machine was designed to annihilate itself, which it did to spectacular effect in the courtyard of MoMA. (The pianola went up in flames, prompting an evacuation by the New York Fire Department.) Beyond the distinction of offering an Instagram moment avant la lettre, Tinguely’s work ingeniously merged sculpture and performance, enlivening both as Homage performed a metamorphosis from one genre to the other.
In the first comment on his Instagram post, Banksy (or someone else) writes that “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” a popular paraphrase of a text by the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. The quote is creatively misattributed to Pablo Picasso, but could equally well be misattributed to Tinguely, Duchamp or Arp or Schwitters. All of these artists opened new avenues of creative expression through assault on the accepted norms of artistic practice.
Banksy has already inserted himself into this iconoclastic tradition with the situationally activated graffiti that made his name. Girl With Balloon (and Shredder) has the potential to contribute to the gamut of aesthetic experience by making looking more urgent in an era that assaults us with countless new pictures daily. With the weaponization of inherent vice, Girl With Balloon is an artistic equivalent to Snaphchat – though it would benefit from more comprehensive eradication of the painted image.
Whether deliberately or not, Banksy has created a sort of self-erasing de Kooning. It’s a brilliant Banksy moment. And everybody is watching.
More Info: forbes.com