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banksy girl with a balloon
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“Going, going, gone.”
POWER PLAY

Banksy’s shredding stunt wasn’t anti-capitalist—it was an emotional ode to the art market

By Bence Nanay

Professor of Philosophy, University of Antwerp

This weekend, Banksy got the art world good.

At least, that’s what most major media coverage of the anonymous artist’s prank would have you believe. Moments after a Banksy painting sold at a Sotheby’s art auction for over £1 million, the artwork self-destroyed via a shredder hidden at the bottom of the frame.

Pretty clever, right? One million pounds is a lot of money. News outlets have speculated about whether the new owners of the artwork are obliged to actually pay this amount.

They would be really stupid not to. That’s because Banksy didn’t actually pull a prank on the art markets at all—the anonymous artist did it a huge favor.

The original framed artwork was “Girl With Balloon,” an iconic but somewhat tired image, of which there are many copies. The image went so mainstream that in 2017 it was voted Britain’s favorite artwork.

One aspect of the story that has been almost completely ignored is that the work was only partially shredded. It seems doubtful that this would be by accident. The lower half of the work is now daintily dangling from the bottom of the frame; the upper half is intact. So the “shredded” work is, in fact, still in one piece, ready to be exhibited in a gallery or sold at another auction. It is a new and all the more valuable work of art, a unique document of an exciting moment in contemporary art history.

And not just that. Banksy was the number-one global Twitter trend for hours during what was not exactly a slow news week. A contemporary artist trending on Twitter is not something that happens very often. This event was talked about and retweeted by people who have never seen a Banksy image in their life. In less than a day after the story broke, there were multiple internet memes based on it – for example, the American Constitution half-shredded.

This kind of global exposure is worth a lot of money. Experts suggest the painting has, at a minimum, doubled in value since the stunt.

The media has portrayed the self-shredding of the Banksy painting as a counter-cultural act—perhaps a remark upon the corporate greed of the art markets, or the pure ridiculousness of the art world in general. But this is no anti-capitalist gesture. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

Don’t get me wrong, Banksy’s stunt was more than just a quick way of making art that makes a lot of money. It was nothing short of an emotional ode to the art markets.