Banksy, Dada and the Banalization of Art

It’s Friday night at the Sotheby’s hall in London. Just another day in the busy marketplace. The auction house is dispatching artwork after artwork. Frenetic bids are made, deals are agreed, and businesses prosper. In a few seconds, million-dollar trades are being conducted. As a result, new owners will amass new artworks, expecting to turn them into profitable investments. Meanwhile, purchasers are looking at their phones and some brokers are speaking by telephone. Well-off market participants paint an exuberant picture of luxury and high culture.

Suddenly, tedium is replaced by surprise. Immediately after Banksy’s Girl with Balloon image is sold for more than £1m, the painting drops through the frame and it is automatically shredded. The unbelieving audience is perplexed. As it was later revealed, some years ago the anonymous artist introduced a shredder into the frame in order to destroy the picture when it was eventually sold. Banksy’s dig has shocked the world of art and, to some, it recalls Marcel Duchamp in the early XXth century, the Dadaist artist who first placed a urinal in a museum exhibition. Again, street art takes revenge on the official art of the establishment.

Along with the main vindication of street and urban art, Banksy’s provocation is aimed at confronting the traditional, discriminatory vision of art. Thus it advocates that art is not to be in museums but rather in the streets, where the true meaning of democratization of art is realized. Art is not to be traded with, nor it is to be reduced into business terms. That’s why, after revealing how he managed to put a shredder in the picture, Banksy published, in his Instagram account, a quote of Picasso: “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge”. These words prove that the auto-destruction of the Girl with Balloon was the final highlight of that artwork, defying that, unlike money or material objects, art has no worries about destruction. Shredding a million-dollar picture in the middle of its auction is the greatest criticism imaginable against mainstream art.

Some art critics pointed out the polemical and irreverent tenor of Banksy’s performance. However, it also signals a dismal outcome. As the British art critic Jonathan Jones phrased in The Guardian, “the only real rebellion left is for works of art to destroy themselves the moment they are sold”. Otherwise stated, auto-destruction of a work of art may at first appear subversive, but, unfortunately, this turns out to be the only possible way of rebellion. Therefore, art is condemned not to have other means of rebellion but self-annihilation.

Indeed, the following events have shown that Banksy’s heroic display seems to be rather a Pyrrhic victory. Some days after the fatal destruction, the picture’s value is presumed to have doubled (according to My Art Broker company). Market forces, thus, have twisted the artist attempt to beat them. Back in the 1960’s, the Marxist philosopher H. Marcuse already noticed this phenomenon and coined the expression “artistic alienation” to signify the capacity of capitalism to subvert any kind of radical purpose in art. Subversive art is steadily assimilated into the logic of capital. Whereas the genuine function of art used to be the liberation of human being, this pretension is eroded in the consumer society and art is downgraded to a mere commodity. Thus, the broad scope of capitalism repression becomes patent. In allusion to the title of Marcuse’s masterpiece, One-Dimensional Man, the culture cannot elude the risk of being reduced to one single dimension.

All this process of repression implies the absorption and invalidation of any kind of rebellion, to the extent that the reality is shaped in a totalitarian manner. In the past, the so-called “high culture” (the elitist art displayed in museums and in theatres) at least represented a break in day to day normality, a transcendence to another dimension. But the modern mainstream art no longer implies this opposition, since democratised art (say urban or street art) is defined by the transformation of all productions and experiences into commodities, the new unique dimension of reality. In the battle for persistence, consumerism defeats art.

In the light of this repressive force of capitalism, Banksy’s insolence has fallen into the trap of the market. Let only be mentioned the fact that the owner of a £40.000 copy of the Girl with Balloon shredded it similarly, meaning to double its value, but it ended up dropping until £1.

It is straightforward that only a truly “assimilated” artist can provoke such an increase in the value of an artwork. Not for nothing Banksy is one of the most valued artists of the scene, possessing an estimated net worth of 20m$, according to Forbes. Don’t forget that being an anonymous artist does not exclude having a legal personality, from which profiting in contracts and sells. Moreover, the artist took off his mask when he published in Instagram a video of the moment of the destruction, that is, he wanted to make a show of his trick and so it was. Currently, the raising debate is not whether urban street art is to be considered art or vandalism -or even terrorism-, but whether art is inevitably condemned to banality. While the one-dimensional art is devouring genuine art, the girl with balloon is but wondering: is the balloon coming back?