Banksy’s Auto-Da-Fé Strips Bare The Contemporary Art Market

By now most of you are familiar with the destruction of a painting by Contemporary artist Banksy that occurred at Sotheby’s last week. For those who missed it, a work by the graffiti guru depicting one of his best known images self-destructed by being shredded shortly after it was sold to an unknown buyer for $1.4 million. Sotheby’s claims that it had no idea that the shredding was going to occur, so we will go with that unless and until any conclusive evidence shows otherwise.

There are many rumors and theories bouncing about in cyberspace about this occurrence. Speculation is rife that Banksy himself, or one of his minions, was in the audience, and pushed some sort of remote control button to start the shredder. Many have noted that the destroyed work was not the original, which was a piece of graffiti on a wall long since destroyed, and that this piece was merely a recent copy specifically created for its destruction on camera.

Whatever you want to believe about the event, British art historian Bendor Grosvenor sums up the whole thing very succinctly by saying that the “happening”, if you will, boils down to one word: money. The Contemporary Art world, and in this I include most of the art establishment, is besotted with money over quality, showiness over substance. Perhaps ironically, this is rather reminiscent of the contrived, pricey, cloyingly sentimental Victorian paintings of children playing with puppies or gazing vacantly at bouquets of flowers, which the newly rich amassed to fill their homes in the second half of the 19th century.

Intentionally or no, Banksy’s auto-da-fé of his own work has shone what for many ought to be a very disturbing light on today’s art world. From the business side of things, reasonable voices have been quietly noting for some time that there is a bubble in Contemporary Art prices. ArtTactic, which provides research data concerning the art market, notes that confidence in the strength of the Contemporary Art market has fallen 24% this year, even while sales of Contemporary Art continue to increase. That bubble has been inflated largely by the art press, art institutions, and art dealers, so that art collectors with extraordinary resources at their disposal are, in many cases, buying largely for investment value rather than out of artistic appreciation.

For a more specific example of how this works, take a look at the downward slide in prices achieved for works by Damien Hirst, one of the most famous Contemporary artists in the world. It’s true that artists go in and out of fashion all the time, but if you bought a Hirst at the top of the market about a decade ago, you’re going to be taking a serious bath if you try to sell it now. Hirst, who for the past two decades has consistently diversified his holdings by investing in property and commercial venues to supplement his already considerable income, recently closed several business ventures in the British coastal resort region of Devon, even though a recent sale of “The Veil Paintings”, new work by Hirst shown at Gagosian L.A., did quite well. Coincidence? Or a reaction to declining market value?

Tied into the inflation of prices for Contemporary Art, as Jane Kallir pointed out in her (excellent) opinion piece for the Art Newspaper yesterday, is the intellectual dearth of connoisseurship in the art market and in the art press that has accompanied the ascendance of Contemporary Art to the sine qua non of current art acquisition trends. “In the past few decades,” she writes, “academia has largely abandoned traditional connoisseurship because it was too often tied to ‘great man’ narratives. Over the same period professional art criticism has been eclipsed by a journalistic preoccupation with glamour, scandal and money.”

As a result, at present the worth of a particular piece lies not so much in its subject matter, or in the artistic skill used in creating it, but rather in the notoriety of the artist (see, e.g., the entire oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiat.) The astronomical amounts of financial speculation involved in the Contemporary Art world, which has led to, inter alia, marketing materials being passed off as serious art criticism and scholarship, and the concomitant decline in art education for the general public, has poisoned the well for decades to come. I don’t see any short-term solution to the problem which Banksy has so succinctly demonstrated exists in the present art establishment, short of some sort of collective recognition of guilt and complicity resulting in a secular bonfire of the vanities.

Yet we need to be careful not to rub our hands too gleefully before such a flame. Not all Contemporary Art is terrible, and there are still highly-skilled, talented artists out there creating interesting work. Moreover, while much garbage was destroyed at the most famous Bonfire of the Vanities in history, instigated by Savonarola in Florence in 1497, many beautiful works of art were destroyed in that conflagration as well – including books by Boccaccio and Dante, and paintings by Botticelli and Fra Bartolomeo. Let’s not go down that road, again.


A New Bonfire of the Vanities

My friend Margaret Perry over at Ten Thousand Places sent me an article last evening about a rather bizarre form of protest taking place in Italy at the moment.  The director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum in Naples has begun burning works of art from that collection, to complain about government funding cuts due to financial austerity measures. This is being done with the support of the artists involved, and took place again today.

This kind of excessive, histrionic behavior is not the exclusive purview of the left, as students of art history are well aware. The reader may have heard the term “bonfire of the vanities”, which refers to a practice that was particularly popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Preachers would invite their listeners to bring sinful objects, or objects which might lead one into sin, to a public place. These objects would be burned, as a sign of contrition and repentance.

The most infamous exponent of this practice, though he himself did not invent it, was the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). For a brief period at the end of the 15th century, Savonarola established what was effectively a right-wing theocracy in Florence, at the very height of the Italian Renaissance. It was perfect timing for him, given that the ruling Medici had been banished for their excesses and heavy-handedness in ruling the Florentine people. Of course, what replaced them arguably turned out to be even worse, in what came to be almost a trial run of the Reign of Terror in France three centuries later.

Savonarola sponsored numerous bonfires of the vanities during his period of influence over Florence, but perhaps the most famous was the one which took place on Mardi Gras in 1497, when hundreds of works of art, books, and other objects were burned in the Piazza della Signoria, the large square in front of the city hall. During this conflagration, and in the ones which preceded it, we can assume that many bad things were destroyed, which were indeed occasions of sin for some people: objects associated with gambling, pornography, drunkenness, and so on. Yet many beautiful things which were not evil in themselves were also destroyed, including secular works by some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, as well as Greek and Roman antiquities, musical instruments and compositions, and works of poetry, drama, and literature.

True, not everything was destroyed that could have been; some objects remained out of the hands of the contrite artists who created them, or the mobs which Savonarola sent about the city finding this sort of kindling were not able to locate as many of these things as they might have liked. Imagine the loss to Western Civilization for example, if Botticelli’s iconic “Birth of Venus”, or his glorious procession of Greek gods in “La Primavera” had been destroyed, as they surely would have been if Savonarola had gotten his hands on them. Yet we do know that the great painter Fra Bartolomeo burned just about everything he had painted that was not of a sacred subject, and the loss to our culture of secular work from the hand of this brilliant draftsman is an incalculable one.

I have always loathed Savonarola, not because he was actually wrong about many of the excesses of the church and society in his day, but because of his arrogance and his methods, particularly with regard to encouraging the destruction of art.  It strikes me that something similar is going on in Naples at the present time.  The thinking behind Savonarola’s actions, and that behind the actions of the Casoria gallery, appear to be quite different, superficially. The former is ostensibly about conversion from sin, while the latter is about government funding of the arts. Yet ironically enough, both are expressions of personal vanity on the part of those advocating these extreme measures.

Rather than being what he ought to have been, an inspiring, fiery preacher, with a sense of his own personal humility as a created being and remembering his vow of religious obedience made before God, Savonarola set himself up as the ultimate arbiter of Christian orthodoxy, which he must emphatically was not. In the process of consolidating his temporal power and encouraging his followers to adhere more closely to his personal cult, he fostered a kind of reverse iconoclasm, where the only acceptable art was Christian in nature. And as devout a Christian as I am, I cannot imagine a world without portraits by Sargent, landscapes by Corot, still lifes by Zurbarán, and so on. The result was a cultural disaster, more designed to show the personal power of Savonarola over his subjects – who later rebelled and executed him – than to encourage a universal good.

In the case of the Casoria gallery, a museum director who genuinely cared about the art under his care would not be setting that work on fire, were he in fact acting selflessly in this matter. I suspect that this sort of stunt does nothing to tug on either the heart- or purse strings of the average, rational Italian citizen. The man in the street probably finds most of the type of art shown at the Casoria rubbish anyway, and is more concerned about not being able to pay his rising utility bills, or that his children cannot find a job, given the poor state of the economy at present.

These actions on the part of the Casoria are a perfect embodiment of the maxim against cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Chances are a pencil-pushing, number-crunching government bureaucrat in Rome, who has to make decisions about budgetary matters for a living, is not someone who is going to care very much if some ugly works of art are burned in the street by a publicity hound in Naples. If the goal is somehow to hold the Italian government hostage until it finds more money which it does not have, then I suspect a great deal more art will be burned at the Casoria before something is done.

At the end of the day, this bizarre publicity stunt is a new, fully secular incarnation of the age-old bonfire of the vanities as practiced by Savonarola and his regime. The stated intent of the old practice was to encourage the sinner to reform his life; the stated intent of the new is to encourage funding of the arts: both are good ends in and of themselves. Yet the means by which these ends are being sought say more about the egos and desire for personal fame of those coordinating these efforts, than about the causes which they claim to be advocating.

“The Execution of Savonarola” by Unknown Artist (1498)
Museum of San Marco, Florence.