24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

Banky - Girl with Balloon

When a piece from the elusive street artist named Banksy shredded itself right after the gavel hit at a Sotheby’s auction, the entire art world was shocked, and it made headlines all around. The piece itself, entitled Girl With Balloon, portrays just that; a girl letting a heart-shaped red balloon go, mounted in a massive ornate frame which we now know hides a shredding contraption.[1] Painted with spray paint and acrylic in 2006, the entire piece measures 39 ¾ by 30 ¾ inches, and it sold for £1,042,000 (around $1.3 - $1.4 million) just before the shred.[2] But the intended work is more than just the piece itself; Girl With Balloon also encapsulates the reactions of the art collectors and critics present at the shredding, as well as the implications of the gesture itself. The stunt is obviously meant as a statement against the state of the art world and the capitalist institutions that Banksy clearly has a distaste for, and his distaste for such institutions has been a central part of a long career as an illegal street artist that has positioned him as one of the most iconic and mysterious artists in the contemporary art world.

Banksy gained his notoriety from spraying walls in Bristol, England with stencils in the 1990s, and has since grown to “bomb” (another term for making graffiti) cities all over the world.[3] Though he has gained worldwide recognition and conjured a considerable amount of backlash from people who disagree with the practice of vandalism, he has always insisted on keeping his identity private, using everything from paper bags and voice modulators to Pest Control, his own organization that he set up to protect his identity.[4] This element of anonymity is one of the most iconic aspects about him, and it has served to cultivate a mystique about him. In fact, it might be one of the biggest reasons why he has become so popular; if he had a specific face that we could look at, he wouldn’t be so mysterious. Banksy’s anonymity even allows him to be perceived as more of an abstract concept at times, taking on the guise of an idea or force. He has become an artistic icon that represents fiery anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, and anti-war sentiments.

Girl With Balloon and the gesture associated with it calls into question the concept of ownership, which is a concept that Banksy is very familiar with. The vandalization of buildings is illegal in most countries, so the entire Banksy project operates against the law, and, in a sense, against the current understanding of how property works. Anything can be a canvas to Banksy. His art flies in the face of the traditional idea that a property is owned and that it is wrong to deface someone else’s property, and his continual engagement in vandalism seems to suggest that he aspires for a world in which property ownership will go away altogether. There are a number of examples of Banksy pieces having unclear ownership that demonstrate this; one piece, entitled Slave Labor, was torn out of the wall that it was painted on by the building’s owner and sold at an auction, and another piece, entitled Mobile Lovers, was claimed by the city after the owner of the shop that Banksy painted attempted to sell the piece.[5] Choosing the moment the gavel hit to shred the piece is important because it is the moment that the ownership change of the piece is decided. This reinforces the fact that this piece is interested in the topic as well.

Vandalizing buildings with art is an expression of his disrespect of the concept of ownership in general, but the act of destroying a work that was already purchased it is a much more direct disrespect of these ideas, and it is a gesture much more easily understood both by the general populace and the “elite” that purchase art at Sotheby’s. Much of Banksy’s street art is largely poetic and open to interpretation, but this means that they are also easy to ignore, and they may not have necessarily conveyed their message clearly to the institutions that Bansky is interested in. Girl With Balloon carries the same spirit of this street art, but takes a much more direct approach that the auction house cannot ignore. It is perhaps the most obvious gesture that Banksy has ever done; he simply does not want his art being sold and owned by the “elite.” In a way, the piece is Banksy’s realization that the best way to criticize an institution is not from outside of it but from inside.

Now, the gesture of shredding the already-bought piece has a very obvious interpretation, but does the actual imagery of the girl letting go of the balloon contain meaning as well? While it is certainly possible that the piece was meant as little more than an object for him to sell and than shred, this does not appear to be the case when the imagery is examined further. The balloon that the girl is letting go of is shaped as a heart, a common symbol for love, so the releasing of this balloon is rather sad, suggesting the idea that some kind of passion or love is being lost. Because the balloon will never come back, the girl will never get this love back. The actual shredding itself seems to have a similar kind of concept, as once the piece is shredded it will never be its whole self again. Put simply, no one can get the original artwork back. The importance of the meaning of the image is further reaffirmed by the fact that Banksy himself renamed the work after its shredding, from Girl With Balloon to Love is in the Bin indicating that the heart shape of the balloon is no accident in relation to the shredding.[6] What exactly this love is not known; it could be a passion for art, the idea of equality, or general compassion and empathy in society, but the context of the piece indicates that the destroyer of this red balloon is institution or capitalism, and the phrase “in the bin” indicates that this love, whatever it may be, is lost.

With Banksy on the rise to fame and glory, he needed to expand his ideas around the world so that he can communicate his messages with other people. In 2012, Banksy went on his own tour around L.A and spray painted works of art in random locations. Every morning, the city of Los Angeles would wake up to find a new painting around their area. When the citizens of L.A heard about this, they went into hysteria just to see his work. 

Usually when graffiti artists decide to tag or deface sides of buildings, the images that they put up do not have any meaning behind them at all. When this happens, people are not excited to see random graffiti from some teenager who wanted to disobey authority, but by having the public view Banksy’s art, it allows them to connect with him in a unique way since he tells us a story from his own perspective on life. In Banksy’s 2010 exhibition, Exit Through the Gift Shop, he was trying to capture the life of street artists such as himself. Eventually the idea of his exhibit evolved into the idea that museums are now being guilty of trying to steal money from the public who would just like to view art. Doing this exhibition was a brilliant move to raise public awareness for graffiti artists who want to create works of art instead of just tagging buildings. Banksy’s ideas gave more credit towards graffiti artists who want to tell their stories.      

As mysterious as Banksy is, he seeks no power or money, yet he has still been able to cover up his identity. By being so mysterious, Banksy has the ability to speak freely without being personally attacked by anyone in society with does drive him to create more works of art at anytime that he feels is appropriate. One of Banksy’s ideas is that he wants to portray the fact that artists and museums need to let artists speak freely on their opinion with certain topics that they want to challenge. Museums or auctions should not take the artists work and make it an object that just holds value in the sense that rich people need to own his artwork. Instead, it needs to be treated with respect in regards to actually honoring someone’s life story. With all of Banksy’s ideas, the one true topic that he wants to accomplish is the fact that his actions can inspire other artists to buck the modern system and challenge other people’s views on events today. From his political views about capitalism to his personal views on sexuality, Banksy has been able to challenge social norms. With some of his original works of art such as Girl with Red Balloon and Mobile Lovers, Banksy has been able to revolutionize the idea of street art into something that allows us as viewers to think about in everyday life from a new perspective. 
[1] “Banksy Girl With Balloon.” Sotheby's, https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2018/contemporary-art-evening-auction-l18024/lot.67.html.
[2] “Latest banksy Artwork ‘Love is in the Bin’ created live at auction.” Sotheby’s https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/latest-banksy-artwork-love-is-in-the-bin-created-live-at-auction
[3]Ellsworth-Jones, Will. “The Story Behind Banksy.” Smithsonian Magazine, Feb. 2013, 2.
[5] Salib, Peter N. “The Law of Banksy: Who Owns Street Art?” The University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 82, no. 4, 2015, pp. 2293–2328. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43655484, 2293-2294.
[6] “Latest banksy Artwork ‘Love is in the Bin’ created live at auction.” Sotheby’s https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/latest-banksy-artwork-love-is-in-the-bin-created-live-at-auction

Works Cited

Banksy. “Shredding the Girl and Balloon - The Director's Half Cut.” YouTube, https://youtu.be/vxkwRNIZgdY.

CBS, “‘Banksy’ creates street art and mystery”. Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDaYqK19q4k

Ellsworth-Jones, Will. “The Story Behind Banksy.” Smithsonian Magazine, Feb. 2013.

Salib, Peter N. “The Law of Banksy: Who Owns Street Art?” The University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 82, no. 4, 2015, pp. 2293–2328. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43655484.

“Banksy Girl With Balloon.” Sotheby's, https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2018/contemporary-art-evening-auction-l18024/lot.67.html.

“Latest banksy Artwork ‘Love is in the Bin’ created live at auction.” Sotheby’shttps://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/latest-banksy-artwork-love-is-in-the-bin-created-live-at-auction

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