After English graffiti artist Banksy’s Girl with Balloon was sold for $1.4 million at Sotheby’s auction house, it promptly shredded itself, leaving those watching the stunt aghast. While the prank garnered a lot of talk about how unique, if frustrating, the setup was, the idea of destructive art is not new. Artists in two major movements, Auto-Destructive Art and New Realism, have striking parallels to Girl with Balloon, which may shed light on the message that Banksy was attempting to convey.
Auto-Destructive Art (ADA) was popularized by Bavarian artist Gustav Metzger, who was born into a Jewish family in 1926. Gustav was influenced heavily by World War II – his parents disappeared in Poland when he was just 17 years old. His work symbolized the demise of the world as he knew it, and the destruction that both the Nazis and war had on his life.
At heart, he was a Marxist and took exception to both war and capitalist greed. Metzger staged public demonstrations, creating and destroying his art at the same time. In 1961, he wore a gas mask and flung hydrochloric acid at three stages of curtains, all different colors. The acid both painted and destroyed the curtains, leaving only remnants of the art. In another piece, he suspended glass sheets using tape, and let them fall one by one onto the concrete. Metzger, like Banksy, was more concerned about the event surrounding the art, rather than the art itself.
Homage to New York
Possibly the work most closely associated with Banksy’s performance piece is the Homage to New York. Billy Kluver, an electrical engineer, and Jean Tinguely, a sculptor, together developed a machine that destroyed itself in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden.
Presented in 1960, it was part of the “New Realism” movement that Tinguely helped pioneer, meant to (sometimes aggressively) take down barriers that made art exclusive and unattainable. Similar to Banksy, the work of Kluver and Tinguely sought audience participation in the destruction of the artwork.
Although Girl with Balloon was Banksy’s first self-destructing work, most of his artwork by design is not meant to be permanent. Much of the graffiti art he has completed have either been covered up, destroyed, or removed for sale in the past.
The painting that was sold at Sotheby’s was a reproduction of his work that was painted on brick in East London in 2002. While it stayed protected for nearly a decade, the image was removed and sold in 2014 for £500,000.
It’s impossible to understand the reasons for Bansky’s desire to shred one of his own paintings, especially after a very lucrative sale. His motives may have been similar to the ADA and New Realism artists, whether to call out capitalism or make a commentary on the idea of art sales in general. All we have to go by is Banksy’s quote of Picasso, which he issued on Instagram the following day, “the urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”