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The Deal of the Art

From Banksy to Sotheby’s—the art world goes shopping

“. . . God, it felt good. . . .The shock of it is part of what makes it good.”
—Jerry Saltz

The year after Andy Warhol died, Sotheby’s auctioned ten thousand of his possessions in a sale that lured more than seven thousand potential buyers. It was 1988, so Dick Cavett showed up at the salesroom near the end and quipped about the record prices paid for an armchair designed by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann. The British punk model Matt Belgrano, also in attendance, agreed with Ronald S. Lauder, heir of Estée Lauder, that the main attraction was Warhol’s collection of cookie jars. “The most important things are the cookie jars,” Lauder told the New York Times. They eventually sold for $247,830, principally to the chairman of the board of the North American Watch Company. Another bidder, Stuart Pivar, an eccentric chemist and a friend of Warhol, was unfazed by the escalating prices. All of these effects, these trinkets and art-luxury items, Pivar told the newspaper, “were part of what Andy called his art.” The sale totaled $25 million, the Times noted, twice as much as expected. The auction took place a little more than six months after the Black Monday stock market crash in October of 1987.

“Do you, uh, care?” Gary Indiana asked about the Warhol sale a few weeks later, in one of his final Village Voice art columns. The spectacle of the auction, the attendant chatter about value, what was sold, who bought it, what it all meant about the global economy, the art market, whatever, obscured what the event was really about, Indiana wrote, which was shopping. Warhol bought hoards of things, and in this respect he shared the impulses of Americans everywhere, including working-class men and women in the 1980s who shopped at malls. “The success of the Warhol Auction marks the highest recognition of shopping as a way of life,” Indiana wrote. For a concluding remark, this is both generous and ahead of its time. Thirty years later, contemporary art could be described broadly as a complex form of shopping, where the chatter about value cannot be easily distinguished from the work. Under these conditions, a living Andy Warhol, with all of his cookie jars, might prefer to appear on an episode of Hoarders.

I thought of the Warhol auction last week when someone working with the street artist Banksy remotely activated a shredder embedded in the back of the frame of his spray-painted work, “Girl with Balloon”—right at the moment it sold to an unnamed buyer for $1.4 million at a Sotheby’s sale. The event was met, like the Sotheby’s auction in 1988, with a lot of talk about the art market, who the buyer was, whether the half-shredded work lost or gained value; only this time journalists and Twitter users also wondered if Sotheby’s colluded with Banksy in the stunt. My first thought was the same as Indiana’s when he arrived at the Warhol auction: “Get me out of here.” My second was that Sotheby’s must have colluded. But then I remembered that I don’t care. All auctions, even the spectacular, are short-lived moments of shopping.

Nevertheless, a wave of titillation, most prominently on the part of critic Jerry Saltz, who praised the prank as an intervention in the art market (though he doesn’t much care for Banksy’s work), gave way to the stern disapproval of The New Yorker. “If the stunt was intended to mock the spectacle of art being reduced to a price tag, the joke might be on Banksy,” wrote critic Andrea K. Scott. This is, from one way of looking at it, a fair complaint. If art is a form of shopping, Banksy’s prank was not just counterproductive, it was rude—imagine if Charles Simic remotely melted your new copy of Voice at 3:00 A.M. right after you swiped your credit card. From another angle, however, Scott’s criticism is a bit hasty. If Banksy’s aim was to draw attention to a work of art’s price tag, he succeeded. And, anyway, Banksy never claimed that the purpose of the performance was to devalue his own work by shredding it; his only statement on the act was to verify, by way of a popular video, that he installed the shredder in the painting’s frame years ago. On Instagram, the video’s epigraph, a quote curiously attributed to Pablo Picasso instead of Mikhail Bakunin, reads, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”

All auctions, even the spectacular, are short-lived moments of shopping.

Maybe we should take Banksy at his word. Or, more generously, we could attribute to his motives the idea, very much implied by his wayward Picasso quotation, of Schumpeter’s gale. If the urge to destroy is creative, and if capitalism relies on creative destruction, perhaps Banksy is hinting that his intention was to increase the value of his work by destroying it. The proof, I think, can be found in his name, which brings to mind a small, one-man bank. If that doesn’t convince you, look to the latest news: the artist has just re-authenticated the trash-work and renamed it “Love is in the Bin,” to the satisfaction of the original buyer. Judged as an episode of extralegal short-term price-fixing, Banksy’s act of autoshredding was an accomplishment for all involved; in the long-term, its status as the supposed first work of art created at an auction means that it will likely appreciate wildly in value. In this respect, with all things being equal, Banksy is the Thomas Kinkade of his generation, inasmuch as both rely on opportunistic financial schemes and clashing effects: Kinkade’s sinister warmth, Banksy’s dark money do-gooderism.

This desire to inflect price, to bargain, to determine shopping behaviors in advance, is a common denominator for contemporary artists—you might say it’s the lowest. Still, if intervening in the marketplace is an operation of contemporary art, many artists would do better to crib from Sotheby’s, who proved last week that it is the best of all bad contemporary artists. It doesn’t matter, as now seems obvious, whether the auction house knew that Banksy would shred the work; it was enough for them to act or be surprised, and for their head of contemporary art in Europe, Alex Branczik, to point out that the “destruction” of the painting may have increased its value. “You could argue that the work is now more valuable,” Branczik said, and the line spread through the news.

Which is to say that Sotheby’s is a solid bad artist because it understands a handful of pragmatic truths about the relation between contemporary art and its market. To begin with, Sotheby’s fully appreciates what art philosopher Boris Groys observed in his book In the Flow: traditional artworks, at least those that “circulate as commodities,” are meant to appeal chiefly to the financial and social elite—almost no one else cares. But Sotheby’s also believes, rightly, that contemporary art is not as concerned with being traditional. Instead, the bulk of art today is ephemeral or in some way event-based, which means that the output of contemporary art is not so much the art-object but the documentation of an event. Sotheby’s knew that the Banksy shredding was such an event, and that the subsequent chatter about the painting’s value, who bought it, or whatever else, would circulate widely on social media—a collection of platforms in search of an event—and that this circulation and newsworthiness would, in the end, please the buyer. In effect, the auction house, with the support of Banksy, brought together the split ends of contemporary art: the work of traditional craftsmanship and the art-event, with its reactionary social media hue and cry.

All of this can only lead us in one direction—down the dark path to Damien Hirst.

Meanwhile, the coziness of Sotheby’s with spectacle has been tied to the growing displacement of connoisseurship by marketing. The argument is straightforward: once upon a time, the auction house certified a work’s value through expertise and research, but now, in an era of total performance, it is more concerned with creating value through the wily promotion of stunts, like the one last week. This rationalization is partly right, though it needs some work. Sotheby’s, for its part, doesn’t have to rely overmuch on marketing because artists like Banksy now do the stunt-work for them and countless magazines and Twitter users supply and circulate the literature. They are, in other words, operating like a hedge fund, choosing to scale back on expertise and invest risk-free in performance, for the moment.

All of this can only lead us in one direction—down the dark path to Damien Hirst. If Sotheby’s has proven itself as an artist by satisfying contemporary art’s penchant for savvy business moves, customer support, and performance-marketing (for shopping, in other words), Hirst has oppositely shown himself to be a malfunctioning, artless modern business. Just over two weeks after the online news outlet artnet determined that Hirst’s works had depreciated in value by around $3 million since 2008, the artist announced that he would downsize his company—which helps him produce and market many, many works in a series—by fifty employees. The move is meant, in a way, to balance Hirst’s portfolio, to please the now vexed original buyers of his paintings, who have lost plenty of money. Tellingly, in order to do this, Hirst chose to discharge members of his financial and IT staffs; his plan is to return to the solitary craft of art-making, of painting more or less in solitude; he’s restructuring toward the traditional art object after failing to have it both ways, Sotheby’s style.

“Art, which once reflected values aloof from simple (or complicated) greed, has been insidiously absorbed into the economy of commercial products,” Gary Indiana wrote in 1986, “its cash worth determined by dicey variables unlike the ones fixed for ordinary commodities.” The difference now is that the variables that determine art’s monetary value are no longer seen as dicey. Instead, they’re understood as art itself.