When Banksy’s Girl with Balloon (2006) began shredding, having just been sold for GBP£860,000, the Sotheby’s audience were momentarily stunned. Whether you regard it as poignant or mawkish, the painting has popular appeal, being the UK’s favourite work of art according to a Samsung poll in 2017, and its partial destruction has impact. Yet if we look closer at the footage, the reactions of amusement amidst the audience reveal much more about the art world than simply a (famously) anonymous (celebrity) outsider railing against the establishment. In this relatively secular age, regardless of whatever subversions or deconstructions it claims, art remains enthused with faith and worship.
‘The passion for destruction is a creative passion’ the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote in 1842, and Banksy’s act appears part of a long anarchic tradition. It’s there in Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 Futurist Manifesto, and its attempts to throw off the dead weight of centuries of tradition by threatening to flood museums. It’s also there in the cacophonous gibberish of Dada that emanated from the Cabaret Voltaire as the nations of Europe sent countless young men to die in the trenches.
Above all, Banksy’s stunt wants to belong to the waves of anti-art, or rather anti-art establishment, that emerged in the 1950s and ’60s. These had a sense of creative destruction at their core. With Philip Corner’s Piano Activities (1962), the Fluxus group performed a ‘score’ that resulted in the destruction of a piano; a happening that was shown on German television and titled, with melodramatic indignation, ‘The Lunatics have Escaped!’ The previous year, on London’s South Bank, Gustav Metzger’s Acid Action Painting (1961) saw him paint with hydrochloric acid, burning holes through his cloth canvas to reveal the cityscape beyond. ‘The important thing about burning a hole in that sheet was that it opened up a new view across the Thames of St Paul’s cathedral,’ he told The Guardian in 2012. ‘Auto-destructive art was never merely destructive. Destroy a canvas and you create shapes.’
Perhaps closest (in style only) to Banksy’s mechanically-aided self-sabotage was Jean Tinguely’s self-destructing machine Homage to New York (1960), which whirled, blared and burst into flame in MoMA’s sculpture garden, before the fire brigade finally put it out of its misery. For Tinguely the idea of the artwork having a transitory lifespan was paramount: ‘I wanted something ephemeral, that would pass like a falling star and, most importantly, that would be impossible for museums to reabsorb. I didn't want it to be ‘museumized’. The work had to pass by, make people dream and talk and that would be all […] It had a certain complex seduction that made it destroy itself – it was a machine that committed suicide. A very beautiful idea!’
These activities all share a puckish sense of mischief, but they also tapped into a darkness inherent to their historical times. Similarly, Al Hansen’s Yoko Ono Piano Drop (1946) originated from his experience as a US soldier in war-torn Germany when one night he’d pushed a piano off the fourth floor of a building. John Latham's Skoob Tower Ceremonies (1966) controversially recalled Nazi book-burning rituals, though his aim was to question the authority of what he called the ‘Mental Furniture Industry’ of academia and education.
The Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS), which took place in London in September 1966, played out against the backdrop of the Cold War nuclear standoff, growing civil rights protests, and the blazing Vietnam War. It was performative, certainly, but not as indulgent or frivolous as it might now seem. It would take more than paint to protest the age of napalm. The gathering of artists – including Metzger and Hansen – emphasized the connection between political oppression, personal trauma, and artistic dissent. ‘Destruction theatre is the symbolic realization of those subtle and extreme destructions which play such a dominant role in our everyday lives, from our headaches and ulcers to our murders and suicides’, participating artist Ralph Ortiz later announced. In a sense, it was a cracked mirror, with Metzger writing in his 1960 manifesto, ‘Auto-destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummelling to which individuals and masses are subjected.’ The artist knew these feelings all too well, given he’d narrowly survived the Holocaust in which his parents were murdered. In Metzger’s eyes, auto-destructive art stood against, rather than for, nihilism.
What was Banksy protesting then when he initiated the shredding of his painting by remote control? Perhaps it was the inflated mercantilism of the art market and the unedifying spectacle around it, echoing Metzger’s assertion that ‘Auto-destructive art is an attack on capitalist values.’ Yet we see in the audience’s laughter that greeted the action how quickly such gestures are absorbed. They are then monetized, not just because the dysfunctional shredder failed to complete its work but because of the art world’s intrinsically religious nature – the newly-made work Love is in the Bin (2018) has doubtlessly increased in value.
Acts of destruction in art remain provocative because they offend our sense of what is sacred. This may be art itself, its history, the connection to its beatified creator, its monetary value or very likely all of these interlinked aspects. Acts of iconoclasm are emotive because they defile what we hold dear, consciously or subconsciously. Consider Ai Weiwei dropping a Han Dynasty urn or Rauschenberg erasing a De Kooning and we might feel that frisson that sacrilege and outrage bring. This dynamic has long existed in religion and politics, from the ancient burning of effigies to the Beeldenstorm destruction of Catholic statues by Lowlands Protestants in the 16th century. Yet as much as iconoclasts seek to destroy icons, they often create or replace them in the process. Parts of the destroyed Fluxus piano were sold off like medieval relics to members of the audience. When Susan Hiller began burning her paintings in the early 1970s she collected the ashes in test tubes as new and resonant works of art, while Cornelia Parker’s work is filled with resurrected objects given new meaning and power by surviving explosions and steamrollers.
Artists play the anointing saint, where they can impart a sense of profundity on objects, spaces or events. It is a role that requires gravitas on their part and an act of faith on ours, however godless we might think we are. We see this most evidently in public performance art from Joseph Beuys to Marina Abramović – even arch-sceptic/romantics like the K Foundation were not immune, travelling on a pilgrimage to burn a million pounds in an abandoned boathouse on the island of Jura in 1994. If you don’t think this anointing exists, consider what happens if another graffiti artist attempts to paint over a Banksy, and how we end up with the sight of Perspex covering certain street art, next to other perpetually-changing designs. The saintliness, the legend of the artist, and the monetary value are all tied together. None of this is necessarily Banksy’s fault or doing but it seems hard for him to escape. Banksy was not defiling the temple or insulting the high priests of art with his attempted iconoclasm (had the piece shredded itself entirely – as planned – he may have). Instead, in the end, he simply made them a different type of icon – a relic for a commercial media-saturated age.