It was like a scene from a movie.
"Girl with a balloon", ladies and gentlemen standing at the back of the room, "announced the auctioneer Oliver Barker with a bravado.
He was referring to the final lot of a Sotheby's auction in London on Friday, October 5th. The piece: a painting work on canvas in 2006 by anonymous street artist Banksy.
When he arrived at the auction block, Barker began shouting six-figure prices that bidders gobbled up, causing the value of the paint to rise more and more in a frantic crescendo. Women in dresses and pearls ran their hands over landline phones to answer anonymous requests. Men in suits wrote down important messages in even more important notebooks.
"Sold!" Barker hummed, banging his hammer against the podium. The piece was for $ 1.4 million, more than three times the estimated price, tying the current record of a work of art by Banksy.
At that moment, however, the clumsy frame of the piece erupted in an alarming and persistent beep. The canvas descended through the lower part of the frame and emerged from the other side in tatters. The crushing process was frozen in half, leaving the upper part of the painting intact. The bottom, however, seemed to be macerated in small ribbons.
The guards rushed to remove the triage box while bewildered onlookers held their iPhone cameras in disbelief. A tormented man with glasses wiped his forehead as if he had just seen a ghost, while another stared at the show with a childish joy.
"Ladies and gentlemen, let's move on, if I could get your attention!" The auctioneer shouted. It's easier said than done, Oliver. Not every day an artist instructs his own million-dollar artwork to self-destruct.
"It looks like we just got Banksy-ed," said Alex Branczik, senior director and head of contemporary art in Europe and London, at a press conference.
For those of us who do not frequent multi-million dollar art auctions, the trick provided a surprisingly unexpected image, one of the collectors and the buttoned sellers stunned in silence by the unmistakable sound of art crushing money.
The breathless praise poured out quickly when the critics effectively transformed the incident from the destruction of a simple act of entrainment into an Art Historical Event ™.
"Banksy made a joke to the world of the insidious auction and interrupted the flow of capital, if only for one night," said New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz. tweeted. "I'm not a Banksy fan, but this made us want to dance barefoot with him."
Saltz elaborated his effusive reaction in an interview with NPR. "The market is a kind of silly organism," he said. "People in the market buy what other people in the market buy. And suddenly, one of the things they are buying has changed. "
For Saltz, Banksy's gesture was an artistic middle finger of the grotesque excesses and whims of the art market. And he was not alone. "The art of Sotheby's destroyed by Banksy was a reprimand for the empty consumerism of a master," proposed an explainer from Vox, adding that "there is one thing you will never call Banksy, and it is a sale."
But to what extent is a "rebuke of empty consumerism" Banksy's tactic? Especially after the art broker Joey Syer. Dear that the partially crushed piece could now be worth double its initial price, "possibly as high as a value of £ 2 million ($ 2.6 million)."
In an email to HuffPost, street art experts Steven Harrington and Jaime Rojo, who run the popular blog Brooklyn Street Art, said they think the estimate could be conservative. "The original piece no longer exists," they explained. "It's a new one, transformed from the old, and along with it comes a well-documented story that includes performance, a stunned audience, a global discussion of social networks. It's hard to say how high this will go. Duplication [the price] it may just be the beginning. "
As a filmmaker Kaveh Abbasian tweeted "Is this capitalism in its most deceptive form, selling itself as anti-capitalism?"
The thing is that, in rebelling against the monied artistic establishment, Banksy still benefits. According to The New York Times, Sotheby & # 39; s did not disclose the identity of the seller of the painting, who acquired it "directly from the artist by the current owner in 2006" according to Sotheby's catalog. However, even if he did not see any of the $ 1.4 million, he made sure that future estimates of his work at the auction will take into account the potential of the post-deck antics and the rising prices that come with them.
Banksy has long been an artist and troll, revolutionary and hypocritical. The establishment of art tolerates its attempts at subversion because it never completely bites the hand that feeds it. Instead, he prefers a light slap and then a kiss. ("Girl with Balloon" put the auction giant Sotheby & # 39; s in the headlines again for a minute, right?)
This last joke made me think of Sacha Baron Cohen's series, "This Is America," in which the star tricks unsuspecting individuals to show them how broken America is. Like Cohen, Banksy's power and privilege limit his ability to significantly dismantle the system from which he benefits so clearly. Was the gesture really more than a nod to his own superpowers that do no harm? At this point, is Banksy too big, too rich, too famous to attack the market that has done so?
"Banksy is as capitalist as any other person," Harrington and Rojo added in their email. "Otherwise, the claims are sadly negative."
Also in denial: maybe Sotheby's own.
The auction house claimed to be innocent of the grand finale of the night; Branczik said that after a press conference "he was not in the trick". But multiple factors suggest that Sotheby & # 39; s I was In the joke. First, the piece reached the last block of the auction, even thought it was not the most expensive job for sale that night. Second, how Andrew Bloch posted on Twitter, a piece of this size would normally be shown on a podium during the sale, not hanging on the wall. And we are destined to believe that Specialists of the auction inspecting the piece. Before the sale, would not you have noticed a crusher integrated into the framework of the painting?
Sotheby's did not respond to HuffPost's request for comment on whether or not the company had prior knowledge of Banksy's performance, or whether the buyer expressed dissatisfaction with the fragmented result.
In addition, it is frustrating that Banksy's stratagem attracted attention from another historical turning point of the night, the breaking of the current auction price record for a work of art by a living artist. Jenny Saville's "Propped" in 1992 sold for £ 9.5 million ($ 12.4 million), marking an important milestone for artists struggling to make their work comparable to their male counterparts, but she probably has not heard about it. of that.
It is true that Banksy's prank caused mischief in an environment known for its upper crust, lighting a trick candle in a room with humidity. At least, it made people gasp and laugh, which, given the news cycle last week, was an act of charity.
Some will categorize the event as a public relations trick or a cute trick, others as a historical inflection point of art similar to Duchamp's "Source". The blurred boundary between the two refers to the current historical moment of muddy art, where the exaggeration of social networks exceeds the opinion of experts and academics. It is more difficult than ever to decipher a simple provocation to break with the internet based on an artistic innovation that changes the game.