“Just another joke or something more? Banksy and Sotheby’s”, CRITICAL TEXT BY LUIZ CAMILLO OSORIO

How to prevent art from being swallowed by the art market? How to appropriate it instead of being appropriated by it? How to provoke it? And how to prevent the provocation itself from being incorporated and generating even more market value? Is it possible? In the exclusive text by PIPA Institute curator, Camillo discusses the complex relationship between art and market. From the “shredding performance” of Banksy’s “Girl with a Ballon,” held at the Sotheby’s auction, Camillo poses questions about the capitalization of the art and reflects on how Banksy’s “performative” episode shakes the notions of value, object, status and market.

Just another joke or something more? Banksy and Sotheby’s


Don’t expect an answer to this question. The relationship between art and the market is full of contradictions. It couldn’t be otherwise. On the one hand, it is a determining factor in ensuring the circulation, visibility and price of the works. On the other, it tends to be unforgiving to the artist, especially when success knocks at the door, sucking up processes and works. Unquestionably, great artists are great when they know how to deal with the mark, which is to say, when they don’t do what the market wants, but, rather, impose what they produce on the market. This is no small achievement and since Yves Klein, Joseph Bueys and, especially Andy Warhol, appropriating the market, interfering with it and constantly dislocating it, have been part of this poetics and way of engaging with the art world.

For some time, this relationship with the market has been becoming ever more complex. Art fairs are almost outstripping, in importance and visibility, the biennales – in a serious crisis of purpose and scale. Many galleries have assumed the role of cultural centres, staging historic exhibitions of established artists, group shows designed by independent curators, producing voluminous publications, disseminating debates and creating an institutional circuit for the artist that would often be impossible without this mediation. Finally, the auction houses are achieving astronomical prices for contemporary works and a hysterical appetite has been unleashed on the part of delirious collectors and billionaires.

In 2008, at the same time that the global financial market was in melt-down, Damien Hirst held an auction of his works at Sotheby’s. Over the course of two days, he sold 223 works and raked in 200 million dollars, a better result than forecast despite the generalized bankruptcy. Cutting out galleries and going straight to the secondary market of auctions was a daring gesture. I would even say, inspired. Intervening in the market in this way and creating such a stir is no mean feat. He didn’t bypass any gallery, but Gagosian and White Cube, two monsters. He ended up being frozen out for some years before returning in grand style during the London Olympics with a retrospective at the Tate and a simultaneous exhibition in all the Gagosian spaces spread around the planet.

So the latest development in this agonizing and impassioned game between contemporary art and the market, once again, sees Sotheby’s on the one side, and, Banksy (say no more), on the other. After having one his paintings – Girl with a balloon – auctioned for the record price of 1.3 million dollars, he activated a shredding device which dilacerated the work, in loco, producing a kind of kinetic-Dadaist performance. This contraption was concealed within the big, ostentatious frame. It was to be activated should the work ever be sold at auction.

Some questions immediately arose in the specialist press: did the auction house know about the “performance”? Given that the painting was dated 2006, how long had this mechanism been concealed? Who was the owner who put it up for sale? Why was it exhibited in the main room (an unusual circumstance given the size of this specific piece)? In the aftermath of the episode, the following questions remain: What must be done to maintain the credibility of Sotheby’s and the works of the artist? Is credibility still a matter of importance to the art market?

All these questions are pertinent, but they become entangled when they adopt parameters of evaluation which accept works, the market and art prices as entities that respect a certain rationality. Banky’s importance is directly related to his capacity to do the unexpected, to create situations of friction, to disorient the mechanisms of valuation, to destabilize expectations and norms. Inserting an inflatable doll dressed as a prisoner from Guantánamo Bay into Disneyworld. graffitiing the US presidential airplane and wall separating Palestinian territory; introducing fake objects into the Tate and the Louvre: all this seemed impossible until it was done. Above all, the most incredible thing, in the case of this specific artist, is the achievement of his identity’s continuing to remain secret in a world of celebrities.

All his actions have huge public resonance. He produces little explosions and discretely disappears off stage. He is a street artist desired by collectors and, thus, by the auction houses. He deconstructs this desire and makes it even greater. After shredding Girl with a balloon he possibly made this work even more valuable and historic. The collector has already confirmed that it wants to keep the piece and will rename it to give it its due historical importance. Was everything all pre-arranged? This matters little. We will never know for sure. Ultimately, what matters in this case is that everything that involves Banksy generates buzz, and this has market value.

Also, using a frame as a performance element does not lack a certain charm. For centuries it was what demarcated the symbolic field of representation. It has been incorporated by modern painting until it has become a plastic element of integration with the external space. Breaking the frame and the pedestal is a determining factor for an art that projects itself into reality and interferes in the visuality of the world.  Museums have been gradually incorporating modern art and the white cube has become a new frame separating art from the world. Graffiti was born in the street and was always noisy. But the market domesticates noise, in the same way that it incorporated the ripped jeans of punks.

When an auction house like Sotheby’s opens its doors to a street artist, in yet another iconoclastic move, it incorporates the frame and its destroying mechanism as a poetic agent. Art no longer knows how to breathe freely without immediately having a price wishing to dictate its value. The trick is to play with the price of art, to provoke it into being what it always was – an abstract value defined by a desire to consume and no specific utility. As Richard Serra once said, “the only way for public art to exist is for it to redefine its context”. Each new poetic move by Banksy forms part of this process, where the market is the defining element of the public context of contemporary art.


Luiz Camillo Osorio is the Curator of PIPA Institute, PIPA’s founder and Board Member. He is a Professor and current Director of the Philosophy Department at PUC-Rio. Camillo was the Curator of MAM-Rio between 2009 and 2015.

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