The curious case of auto-destructive art

Art Art & Lit Culture

One of the most extraordinary events in the art world in 2018 was the shredding of renowned street artist Banksy’s work Girl with a Balloon (2006).  The surreal event unravelled at a Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Auction in October 2018. Bids for the famous print escalated from £100,000 to £400,000, until the final bid was offered at an impressive £1.04 million. As the hammer sounded the sale, the crowds’ cheer was interrupted by a beeping sound coming from the work. Witnesses then watched with astonishment as Banksy’s celebrated piece was shredded into slithers by its own frame.

Unknown to the participants at the auction, they were part of an elaborate stunt choreographed by the artist himself. After the event, Banksy revealed in a video on Instagram that, a few years ago, he had devised the self-destructive painting by building a shredder into its frame in case it was ever offered at auction. Blades were hidden within the frame and the shredder was activated after the hammer went down. Banksy celebrated the performance with a sardonic caption indicating his belief that he had duped the art establishment: “Going, going, gone…”

Banksy’s stunt brings into question the validity of widely held ideas about ownership and provenance in the art market. In a trade where art experts handle and estimate the value of works of art, it is uncommon for the artwork itself to dupe the art experts by falling to pieces out of its frame. Banksy seems to assert the power of the artist above the experts. Furthermore, the fact that Banksy chose the art market as the stage for his stunt makes it difficult not to speculate that he may have intended to criticise materialism.

“The canvas can display more than creation; it can display conflict.”

Before Banksy’s shredded painting took the art press by storm in 2018, the arresting spectacle of destroying one’s own art was already something of a tradition. As art historian Noah Charney notes, it is known that Michelangelo destroyed many of his preparatory sketches and drawings in order to improve his image, so that his audience and patrons would perceive him as a carefree genius, rather than one who put in considerable effort. It is true nonetheless that the deliberate destruction of artworks by their artists has mostly been a modern phenomenon.

A term was coined for the counter-intuitive practice in the early 1960s by artist Gustav Metzger – auto-destructive art – to describe art in which the process of creating involved its destruction. This destruction was not the impulsive kind, it was purposeful, as Metzger employed his auto-destructive paintings as a form of protest against the colossal damage inflicted by the invention of nuclear weapons.  In an article in the Guardian in 2012, Metzger was quoted saying, “Auto-destructive art was never merely destructive. Destroy a canvas and you create shapes.”

“What is seen becomes equally as appealing as the hollow absence of what is no longer seen; the shreds of Banksy’s painting as evocative as the complete canvas.”

Perhaps what Metzger meant by ‘shapes’ is how auto-destructive art is similar to the inherent destructiveness of a roaring fire, which casts shadows beyond its frame of reference. These shadows and shapes cast by auto-destructive artwork can contain manifold critiques: of consumerism, of capitalism and of a society that designed machinery to destroy existence. The canvas can display more than creation; it can display conflict. Auto-destructive art packs this message with a punch, as seen in 1960 when Jean Tinguely constructed a self-destructive sculpture and machine, which was designed to batter itself to pieces in New York’s Sculpture Garden in the Museum of Modern Art. This performance could be viewed as a critique of a society gradually destroying itself through its own actions.

Auto-destructive art takes an interest not only in why society invests in creation but equally why it invests in destruction. What is seen becomes equally as appealing as the hollow absence of what is no longer seen; the shreds of Banksy’s painting as evocative as the complete canvas. Auto-destructive art does not simply impress an image of one moment for us to look at, instead, it is rather similar to a triptych, showing the beginning, erosion, and destruction of a subject. It communicates ideas that are as universal as they are abstract,  never truly being destroyed but remaining powerfully for those who perceive them.

Image Credit: Dominic Robinson (CC BY-SA 2.0)