The Cost Of Banksy’s Middle Finger

The Cost Of Banksy’s Middle Finger

The shreds have settled on British art, but they’ve turned into pound notes. The most audacious result of Banky’s self-sabotage is how quick Sotheby’s were to spin what happened in their auction room, on the 5th October, as a rhapsodic high-five for the people who have taste – which is to say, money.

After ‘Girl With A Balloon’ was fed through more than two dozen metal teeth, dropping from its frame like slow-printing ‘Screw You’, the aesthetic illuminati gasped, held their foreheads and took pictures. We’ve seen Banksy prank the world before, but rarely himself. This was one of his most iconic images. Gone. All because a tiny mallet made a clunk. 

If you stood up wherever you were reading about it, and clapped, and perhaps took a fire extinguisher from a wall to spray on a nearby couple in the heat of a kiss, thereby spreading your own social anarchy in a small but no less meaningful way, I don’t blame you. But then, hark! There’s news on the painting. It is not only still being sold. It has been mooted for a greater resale value than it would otherwise have, if the stunt never happened – to the tune of £800,000 or thereabouts. Sotheby’s honcho, Alex Branczik, has claimed ‘Love In The Bin’ (the revamped title) is “the first artwork in history to be created live during an auction.” 

How do you feel about that? Does it make you rage at the commodification of something that was meant, entirely, to call attention to the narrow canal of the art market, where only the very wealthy are able to travel? Or do you think it might just be saying more about that market, in effect, by pretending to punk it? Banksy and his authentication body, Pest Control, must’ve known it would still sell. And likely for more, in time. Art is as much the story behind it, and the meaning it has brought to us, as the way it looks. 

The Dadaists would’ve approved. Marcel Duchamp, one of their most ardent practitioners, put a men’s urinal in a gallery as a joke. Today it’s worth millions. Even when a dude chipped it with a hammer in 1993, the work’s iconoclastic edge was only heightened, not softened. Anything that inspires rage or shock must be worth more than an object we’re content to look at, year after year, that doesn’t lead to much except an entry fee. The Mona Lisa has survived acid and a hurled mug. Repin’s famed scene of Ivan The Terrible once drove a man to sink a vodka at the Treyakov’s buffet, fetch a metal fencepost, and score wounds into the canvas. These pieces are so revered that they’ve inspired madness. So why shouldn’t collectors pay more for them?

Hmmmm, yeah. There’s just the small problem of vocal, violent rebellion – in the instance of great art surviving its popularity, and Banksy’s statement on how we’re so consumed by prestige when discussing such things. When normal people or even the creator themselves (such as, by association, Michael Landy’s 2001 cleansing of his entire possessions in a London store) get angry, the hierarchy should take note, instead of upping the price tag. 

The vast majority of us will never own a great painting, sketch or sculpture. Galleries speak of distance in their very design – barriers, blank spaces, barely anywhere to sit comfortably and take it all in. Fresh talent barely gets a look in unless it wins a prize. Artists are ruled by the galleries they choose to present them. Supposing they try to sell their work on their own, they may be blacklisted. Gallery owners also send lackeys to auctions, bidding continuously to drive up the cost. 

For creatives anywhere, smacked down on the balustrade of recognition, Banksy’s middle finger can seem as far up the arse of the establishment as we’re able to go. For the cynic in us, it’s a reaffirmation of the sad side of what art is, or what it continues to be. Your stance on that argument rests on whether you view destruction as an excuse to keep sacred cows sacred, as opposed to tearing them apart.