Banksy’s shred­der

His great­est work

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The mo­ment I love most in the video Banksy has re­leased of his lat­est art stunt is when a be­spec­ta­cled man with the well-groomed air of an art-world pro­fes­sional puts his hand to his fore­head in ap­par­ent dis­be­lief at what he is see­ing: a mil­lion quid be­ing shred­ded. He looks gen­uinely fright­ened that the rev­o­lu­tion has reached May­fair and that ac­tivists are about to storm Sotheby’s, where Banksy’s framed picture Girl With Bal­loon has just me­chan­i­cally self-de­struc­ted – shortly af­ter go­ing un­der the ham­mer for a lit­tle more than £1m.

If this mo­ment of artis­tic ter­ror­ism last Fri­day re­ally had been – as at least one mem­ber of the au­di­ence ap­peared to think – the sign for all the col­lec­tors and deal­ers as­sem­bled at yet an­other big-sell­ing night in the art in­dus­try to be dragged out of the auc­tion­eer’s and shot, there would be VIP blood in the gut­ters of New Bond Street. For Banksy put his art­work through the shred­der at the cli­max of the busiest week in the Lon­don art mar­ket, when in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tors fly in for the Frieze art fair and its satel­lite par­ties, pri­vate views and pur­chases. “In the spirit of Frieze week, the Oc­to­ber contemporary art evening auc­tion is led by a se­lec­tion of out­stand­ing works,” en­thused Sotheby’s about its sale. Ap­par­ently, it had no idea that one of these mod­ern trea­sures was booby-trapped.

Yet, by the next morn­ing, self-pro­claimed mar­ket in­sid­ers were claim­ing to be the first to get Banksy’s joke. (Oth­ers say the stunt is a hoax.) One, Joey Syer, an on­line art bro­ker, was of­fer­ing bullish “in­sight” to the me­dia: “The auc­tion re­sult will only pro­pel [Banksy’s prices] fur­ther and, given the me­dia at­ten­tion this stunt has re­ceived, the lucky buyer would see a great re­turn on the [£1.042m] they paid last night. This is now part of art his­tory in its shred­ded state and we’d es­ti­mate Banksy has added, at a min­i­mum, 50% to its value, pos­si­bly as high as be­ing worth £2m-plus.” De­spite Syer of­fer­ing no ev­i­dence for this claim, it got into the me­dia. Af­ter all, such cyn­i­cal savoir- faire sounds plau­si­ble if you have fol­lowed the freako­nomics of art. Of course Banksy dou­bled the value of Girl With Bal­loon by de­stroy­ing it. The art mar­ket al­ways wins.

I beg to dif­fer. I am not ex­actly Banksy’s big­gest fan. I walked around his anti-theme-park Dis­ma­land with a frown on my face, not be­cause I was part of the per­for­mance, like the grim and sulky greeters, but be­cause I found it truly dismal. But the rush for know­ing in­sid­ers to say Banksy’s art is more valu­able now is be­side the point. Yes, re­bel­lion is al­ways be­ing re­claimed. Yes, ev­ery­body knows the dice are loaded, ev­ery­body knows that the good guys lost, as Leonard Co­hen ob­served. But come on. For once, an artist has gen­uinely pissed all over the sys­tem that re­duces art to noth­ing but a com­mod­ity. What hap­pened at Sotheby’s is Banksy’s great­est work. He has said some­thing that needed to be said: art is be­ing choked to death by money. The mar­ket turns imag­i­na­tion into an in­vest­ment and protest into decor for some oli­garch’s house. The only real re­bel­lion left is for works of art to de­stroy them­selves the mo­ment they are sold.

Banksy’s Mil­lion Quid Art­work De­stroy­ing It­self – as per­haps we should call this mas­ter­piece of rad­i­cal per­for­mance – be­longs to a tra­di­tion of de­struc­tion in art that is only just 100 years old. In 1917, a porce­lain uri­nal, ti­tled Foun­tain and bear­ing the sig­na­ture “R Mutt” in crudely daubed black paint, was sub­mit­ted to a New York art ex­hi­bi­tion. Mar­cel Duchamp, the man be­hind the stunt, is of­ten seen as a dry, ironic wit whose “ready­mades” are dis­sected rev­er­ently as philo­soph­i­cal co­nun­drums, but that does an in­jus­tice to the anger and con­tempt in his ges­ture. To call a pis­soir Foun­tain was to uri­nate on high culture – and that could not be a neu­tral ges­ture in 1917. Duchamp was part of the dada move­ment. This de­lib­er­ately re­duc­tive and pri­mal move­ment – the name im­i­tates baby talk – was be­gun by paci­fist Ger­man draft dodgers in ex­ile in Switzer­land in 1916 and spread to Ber­lin, Paris and more cities by the end of the first world war.

The dadaists hated the Euro­pean culture of fine art and self-con­scious sen­si­tiv­ity that could slaugh­ter its youth by putting them through the gi­ant hu­man shred­der that was the western front. All sides in the first world war claimed to be de­fend­ing “civil­i­sa­tion”. The dada gen­er­a­tion spat on that civil­i­sa­tion. In his 1919 work LHOOQ (which sounds like the French for “she’s got a hot arse”), Duchamp drew a mous­tache and small goa­tee on a re­pro­duc­tion of the Mona Lisa. He also said he wanted to “use a Rem­brandt as an iron­ing board”.

The prob­lem with the anti-art tra­di­tion that started with dada’s vi­o­lence against the very idea of culture is that, over the past 100 years or so, it has been as­sim­i­lated into the main­stream of mod­ern art. The sassy and slick smart alecs who are claim­ing that all Banksy has done is add value to his work are the lat­est in a long line of art-world in­sid­ers who have turned dis­si­dence into art his­tory. As an older man in the 60s, Duchamp was em­braced by the es­tab­lish­ment. Repli­cas were made of his lost Foun­tain. There is one in Tate Mod­ern to­day.

The Young Bri­tish Artists saw the com­mer­cial po­ten­tial of Duchamp’s ideas. You could put a shark in a tank and call it art, then turn it into money. The re­sult is what Banksy’s video of the crowd at Sotheby’s shows: an in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity of the well-heeled spend­ing their money on art that has an aura of dadaist dan­ger. As well as Banksy’s Girl With Bal­loon, the auc­tion in­cluded a slashed white can­vas by Lu­cio Fon­tana and a paint­ing by Piero Man­zoni, whose most no­to­ri­ous mas­ter­piece is a can la­belled Merda d’Artista (Artist’s Shit).

Look­ing at these lots, the game be­ing played at the auc­tion is not that sub­tle. On the one hand, the col­lec­tors were be­ing of­fered the thrill of anti-art. On the other, they were be­ing sold nice paint­ings to hang at home. Beauty with just a whiff of the uri­nal, the artist’s merda, the street. Banksy’s Girl With Bal­loon seemed to fit this shal­low

Janus-faced aes­thetic per­fectly. He is an artist fa­mous for work­ing in the street, paint­ing, with the help of sten­cils, im­ages of kiss­ing cop­pers, cheeky rats and flower-throw­ing an­ar­chists on walls all over the world. Yet Sotheby’s was sell­ing a finely framed ver­sion of one of his most fa­mous graf­fiti im­ages – lit­er­ally do­mes­ti­cat­ing his art by turn­ing it into a lux­ury paint­ing, a mod­ern Mona Lisa.

Per­haps they should have won­dered why an artist known for re­bel­lion would cre­ate some­thing so posh-look­ing. But no one guessed that Banksy had been study­ing mod­ern art his­tory. For hid­den in­side his paint­ing was a de­vice in­spired by one of the most stub­bornly sub­ver­sive off­shoots of the dada tra­di­tion. The Bri­tain-based artist Gus­tav Met­zger in­vented auto-de­struc­tive art at the start of the 60s, just as Duchamp was be­ing as­sim­i­lated as glossy pop. In his most spec­tac­u­lar demon­stra­tion of the idea, he “painted” a sheet of white ny­lon with acid in front of an au­di­ence on the South Bank in Lon­don. The act of mak­ing this art­work also de­stroyed it.

Met­zger had rea­sons to be an­gry. As a Jewish child in Nurem­berg in the 30s, he witnessed some of the Nazis’ big­gest ral­lies. He was saved by the Kin­der­strans­port, but lost his fam­ily in the Holo­caust. For him, auto-de­struc­tive art was part of a life­long re­fusal to be part of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem. One of his keen­est dis­ci­ples was a young art stu­dent who met him at Hornsey School of Art and went on to be­come a rock star. Pete Town­shend saw his reg­u­lar smash­ing of gui­tars in Who con­certs as auto-de­struc­tive art.

Auto-de­struc­tion is one of the hard­est acts for the com­mer­cial art world to as­sim­i­late. When Michael Landy de­stroyed ev­ery­thing he owned as an art­work, it was a con­scious farewell to the com­mod­ity art of the Hirst gen­er­a­tion to which he be­longs. When the K Foun­da­tion burned a mil­lion pounds, their ges­ture was so far out­side the ethos of main­stream art that it was barely recog­nised as art at all – more like a bloody stupid waste of money.

When the auc­tion­eer’s ham­mer came down at Sotheby’s and a “mod­ern mas­ter­piece” be­gan to eat it­self, the stage was set per­fectly. Here was the art world’s mo­ment of truth – how­ever the­atri­cal and mul­ti­fac­eted it may prove to be. Of course, this re­volt will be as­sim­i­lated. Of course, the mar­ket will smile and the cash tills will go on ring­ing. Yet for once the com­mod­ity bit back. Art turned on the hands that feed it.

In prin­ci­ple, all artists should do the same un­til the mar­ket is cut down to size and stops defin­ing the art of our time. Most won’t, of course, for good rea­sons such as the need to make a liv­ing. Yet Banksy has let a lit­tle light into a very claus­tro­pho­bic room – and proved he is the artist who mat­ters most right now.

The prob­lem with anti-art is that it has been as­sim­i­lated into main­stream mod­ern art

Gus­tav Met­zger demon­strates auto-de­struc­tive art in Lon­don

Banksy’s Girl With Bal­loon goes through a shred­der; Michael Landy de­stroys his be­long­ings (left)

Mar­cel Duchamp’s Foun­tain; gui­tar-smasher Pete Town­shend (be­low right)

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