A masked protagonist, a hidden mechanism and a stupefied vendor; so much of the infamous recent sale of the self-destroying Banksy painting resembles a bank heist. With one crucial difference - after the art heist, everyone is happy. The enigmatic Banksy solidified his reputation as the enfant terrible of the art world, managing to stay away from public scrutiny while providing (shredded) physical proof of his presence. Seemingly surprised by the self-destructive turn of events, the auction house needed less than a day to change tack and to proclaim the creation of a new work by Banksy, orchestrating a turnaround that appears to have convinced the initially hesitant buyer to go through with the purchase. In this game everyone is a winner – a graffiti artist enters the Pantheon of Art with a clever trick, simultaneously destroying and creating value; an auction house receives considerable publicity, even though it is facing accusations for negligence in inspecting the work and for possible collaboration in the heist; a buyer purchases a piece of history in the making, becoming a party to a well-staged performance.
If this happy-go-lucky game sounds too good to be true, it probably is. What can we make of a film script that features the key traits of the heist genre, yet so spectacularly fails to deliver on its essentials – a theft, a damaged reputation, the pursuit of justice and a villain on the run? In this film no one is running and no one is calling the police; there is no crime and no accusations. But it is the very lack of finger pointing and the quick suppression of the scandal that ultimately make this movie fall flat. For truly groundbreaking developments, there needs to be something at stake – money, reputation or credibility. When the buyer walks away happy, the auction house co-creates an artwork and the artist inserts himself ever deeper into the media vortex, the impression is not of a classic, but of a B movie in search of artistic value, devoid of the sense of drama, tragedy or scandal accompanying greatness in any artistic domain. Scandals play a key function in the consecration process, clarifying contradictions and lines of contestation, making visible latent tensions and encouraging new pursuits.
Duchamp’s Urinal or Picasso’s Brothel in Avignon have stayed in collective memory with the uproar they created upon their unveiling, but much of their power resides in the way they challenged established norms of conceiving an artwork and provoked a change of viewing point. Little of that is manifest here, as we get more of the same – more of the booming art market with skyrocketing prices, more of the notion of art as performance and more of the conceptualization of a professional activity that used to be based for centuries on craftsmanship and the pursuit of excellence. The Bank(sy) Heist does not criticize the commercialization of art as much as it keeps feeding the beast, contributing to a healthier balance sheet for the auction house, to media frenzy and the consecration of art as performance, where the idea at the origin of an artwork attracts much less attention than the emotion its execution invokes.
The Bank(sy) Heist will likely enter the annals of art history. But its lasting impact may lie less in its artistic message than in its implications for a market that has been trending upwards for over a decade. A market that conforms less and less to the classic dictums of supply and demand or to established notions of creation and destruction of value. One is left dumbfounded by the ease with which boundaries are crossed and principles of evaluation are juggled in switching between a physical and a conceptual artwork. The art market has acquired the magical prowess of a hybrid creature from Greek mythology, as reflected in the metamorphosis of artworks and the transformation of value. In this world, no clear lines exist between physical and conceptual, between the act of creation and that of destruction, as physical morphs into conceptual and as destruction morphs into creation.
This is “Alice in Wonderland” territory rather than the prosaic realm of economic textbooks, where markets are ordered by price, volume or category, where quality of execution determines price, where categories cannot be easily confounded, lest they confuse the buyer, where value is created as well as destroyed, and where the buyer has clear preferences as to the nature of the product. This realm is so much less exciting than Wonderland, where no clear line can be drawn between a botched sale and a new artwork, where value can be rehashed, but not lost, where categories are mixed and boundaries trespassed with impunity and where no one, least of all the buyer, understands where the production process begins and where it ends.
There is no single definition of what a healthy market is. It can be a market that keeps growing for decades and attracts new buyers with increasing purchasing power in times of growing inequality. But maybe, a healthy market is a market that allows for lower quality and subpar execution to be recognized as such, for value to decrease, for transactions to fail when the product is damaged, and that makes possible voluntary destruction. Destruction is an essential ingredient of regeneration and is responsible for innumerable drawings and paintings disappearing from artists’ studios over centuries. One cannot but wonder if a market where an artwork is not allowed to die in the shredder has a future.