Opinion

Was Banksy’s Recent Stunt a Hoax?

Skeptics have offered their own theories about the controversy, some denying it was even shredded at all.

Robert Casterline’s photographs of the incident, including the work shredding itself and people trying to stop it. (images used with permission)

Oh, that Banksy! The artist’s Friday night hijinks at a Sotheby’s auction snagged international headlines on October 5, as an allegedly unknown apparatus mounted inside a picture frame appeared to shred a valuable “Girl with a Balloon” (2006) image, just as the gavel dropped on the winning £953,829 (~$1,251,423) bid. Is there any length to which the elusive street artist-turned-jester in the high court of fine art won’t resort, in order to thumb his nose at art market values?

Well, perhaps one — sharp-eyed internet sleuth Steve Bowler (@gameism) has speculated that the shredded work was not the actual print, but a facsimile planted in the frame, in what basically constitutes a classic bait-and-switch illusion.

“So, I have a theory about that Banksy shredded girl w/the red balloon: It’s not shredded,” tweeted Bowler, alongside some NFL-highlights-style still captures of the shredding caught on video. “It’s still rolled up inside the frame. A pre-torn canvas rolled out from behind the one in front that is rolled up behind itself. The torn canvas doesn’t line up w/the one in front.” Aside from this mismatch in images, Bowler then troubleshoots his own theory, pointing out that the so-called shredded canvas emerging from the bottom of the frame has some internal inconsistencies, as well.

“And even though the torn canvas appears to be lit differently, I think maybe I could be wrong and that might be the original canvas? This wave in the canvas indicates it’s been pulled tight between rollers for a looooong time, so yeah maybe?”

So it seems that even “arguably the greatest British street artist,” according to a quote by Alex Branczik (the auction house’s head of contemporary art for Europe) in Art Newspaper, still quails at the notion of destroying an art-commodity valued at more than a million dollars. And who could blame him? Another theory, reported by College Times, includes the notion that Banksy himself was the mystery bidder. The artist, according to a statement Sotheby’s released to the Financial Times, was “surprised by the story,” and is in discussion with the auction house about next steps.

It feels improbable on many levels that such shenanigans could have really taken places without some kind of buy-in from Sotheby’s, and likewise improbable that anyone within the big-money art scene would willingly abet the destruction of a paycheck — sanctity of the actual art aside. But perhaps the most improbable notion of all is that anyone truly feels that this most rote and replicated Bansky image is worth either a million dollars or a great deal of kerfuffle about its sensational destruction. Feels a bit like a publicity stunt by an artist who, in spite of his tendency to subvert art-world conventions, has nonetheless done very good business by his place in the spotlight. Cheers to Banksy, for another headline-stealing prank, thus taking the art world to the bank once more!

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