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The satirical world of contemporary art – from Banksy to broadcasting

29 October 2018

There’s a strong chance that if you read one more word about Banksy you’ll feel a powerful urge to shred this magazine. So many articles, blog posts and tweets have been written about the self-destruction of Girl With Balloon at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sale on 5 October that, whether or not the auction house was in on it, the prank has proved an immense publicity win for both the artist and his chosen playground.

It is tempting to see the entire stunt as a debacle for Sotheby’s. If the auction house didn’t know that a shredder had been concealed in one of its lots, then we might expect the consequences to include an erosion of consumer confidence, mushrooming insurance costs for the company, and a substantial review of its due diligence and security procedures. And if it did know – which seems more likely – then shouldn’t the business be getting more flack for being complicit in hoodwinking its customers?

But let’s face it: none of this matters. The work in question was not a Canaletto that started to crumble from its canvas or a Barbara Hepworth that melted in the saleroom. The entire caper is easily contained by the brand that is Banksy; it was an unexpected piece of theatre of the type that everyone has come to expect from him.

The destruction of Girl With Balloon was an expensive joke that the buyer of the work has decided to pay for, to the benefit of all parties. Retitled Love is in the Bin (and swiftly remarketed and re-exhibited by Sotheby’s), it is now almost certainly more valuable than it was before the blades started buzzing. Meanwhile Banksy’s reputation is burnished and Sotheby’s has been mainlining the attendant publicity. Don’t expect to see any heads rolling at its contemporary art department just yet.

At this altitude, the art world easily appears as its own satire. Its events, procedures and many of its characters often seem so outlandish that they could not be exaggerated even by the imagination of the greatest satirists. Indeed, when this genre sets its scalpel to the art world it tends to struggle to make an incision: many of the jokes fall flat in The Square, Ruben Östlund’s film of 2017, because its attempt to lampoon a contemporary art museum only really succeeds in imitating such a place.

The contemporary art world relishes caricaturing itself, and it is documentary that best catches its comic excesses. That includes works such as Eric Fischl’s Art Fair paintings, in which the slow ironies of paint begin to defamiliarise what are otherwise recognisable scenes of social and commercial transaction. But it is when film crews enter the fray that things get more interesting, since that is when we see real people in the art world enjoying the performance of its absurdity. Remember the BBC documentary Sold! Inside the World’s Biggest Auction House (2016), in which high-profile names at Christie’s gently skewered themselves to mark the auction house’s 250th birthday?

Something similar happens in The Price of Everything, Nathaniel Kahn’s new documentary film about the contemporary art market in New York. Kahn is fair to his interview subjects, but few come across sympathetically. Most of the exceptions are artists: Njideka Akunyili Crosby shrugs as she watches one of her works, flipped by its vendor, soar above its auction estimate to achieve nearly $1m; the veteran painter Larry Poons seems actively disinterested in his own market.

Others do not fare so well. In the context of some masterful montages – a ballet of hammers falling, a car-chase pastiche in which works by George Condo are sped from studio into storage – the words of high-profile figures take on a comic sheen. Jeff Koons stands in his studio, inspecting his flock of assistants at work on versions of the Old Masters: ‘I am in a way physically doing this […]’, he says. Or take Amy Cappellazzo, a big cheese at Sotheby’s, conceding that ‘Even lay people can feel something’ when they look at a work of art.

I laughed a lot as I watched this film, but I was never sure whether I was laughing with its characters or at them. But does it matter? In the contemporary art world, self-destructive comedy makes for good publicity.

From the November 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.