Why Banksy’s art stunt is economic genius
Guerrilla artist’s true talent is in exposing the economics of art
● Based on experiments conducted by himself and others around his work, Banksy, the famous street artist, could write an economics dissertation on the monetary value of art. In a way, that unwritten paper could be his crowning achievement.
Banksy made headlines earlier this month when, moments after a 2006 framed copy of his Girl with Balloon was auctioned at Sotheby’s in London for $1.4m (R20.5m), the artwork began to self-destruct by means of a remote-controlled, mechanical paper shredder that had been built into the frame.
The stunt was Banksy’s latest contribution to the empirical study of the value of art. Through it, he tested the nature of demand at the high end of the market.
The likely result will be that the artwork’s clever partial destruction (the lower part of the picture now hangs prettily out of the frame, evenly cut into narrow strips) will only increase its value, since the happening was so public, and the stunned reactions of people in the auction room have been captured on video.
Now, we have the auction price before the shredding — and we’ll likely see a higher post-shredding price, too, putting a clear, separate market value on the story behind the object, something notoriously difficult to do, more difficult even than pricing pure performance art.
Banksy is probably the only artist in history for whose work such a wide range of market prices, from less than zero to millions of dollars, has been documented.
When he started out, his work was sometimes seen as vandalism and painted over, like any other graffiti. (This still happens on occasion: last month, the new owner of a shop in Bristol started painting over an early Banksy work, stopping only when he was told of its provenance.)
Eventually, people started lifting Banksy work off walls and selling it, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of dollars. On a trip tracking Banksy’s stencils in Palestine, I heard the story of a building owner who had made more money that way than if he’d sold the house.
But Banksy hasn’t just accepted the irony of his stardom as a stroke of luck or an assertion of higher justice. He’s studied it.
In 2013, he set up a stall in New York’s Central Park, where a senior citizen peddled signed originals, worth tens of thousands of
It’s hard not to view financial reimbursement as a badge of self-serving mediocrity
dollars at auction, for $60 apiece. He made a grand total of $420 in a day.
The reason, of course, was that to the passers-by, people who’d either never heard of Banksy or who wouldn’t have imagined that he would sell his works so cheaply, there was no story behind the images.
If Banksy were an economist rather than a satirical street artist, he might have wrapped his findings into a model — perhaps like the one in Moshe Adler’s purely theoretical 1985 paper that sought to explain “why a hierarchy in income could exist without a hierarchy in talent”.
Adler wrote: “The main argument was that the phenomenon of stardom exists where consumption requires knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge by a consumer involves discussion with other consumers, and a discussion is easier if all participants share common prior knowledge. If there are stars, that is artists that everybody is familiar with, a consumer would be better off patronising these stars even if their art is not superior to that of others.”
It’s not often that one finds a star willing to contribute as knowingly and creatively to this theory as Banksy does.
“When you look at how society rewards so many of the wrong people, it’s hard not to view financial reimbursement as a badge of self-serving mediocrity,” Banksy once wrote. Contempt can be a strong motive for exploration.
In a way, it’s a shame the images can no longer be separated from the economic experiments. Once, they were fresh and surprising — and made better tattoos. Now, you’d need to be Justin Bieber to get one of the balloon girl.
But perhaps Banksy’s true talent is less in his painting and more in his revealing the ways in which the world interacts with art and artists.
The body of bittersweet knowledge he’s building up will be his legacy when the last of his stencils has faded from the wall. Bloomberg
Banksy’s ’Girl with Balloon’ goes through the secret shredder after its auction at Sotheby’s.