Whether or not we live in the age of irony has been a matter of some debate for the last 20 or so years.
Shortly after 9/11, Time magazine declared the age of irony officially over, but by 2006, NPR was pretty sure it was alive and well in the United States – and by 2012, The New York Times said it was still firmly with us, but probably bad for us.
This weekend, we as a planet learned that it seems the age of irony is alive, well and pulling anti-capitalist pranks in the heart of London.
It started with a contemporary art auction at Sotheby's London that featured a painting by English graffiti artist Banksy, called Girl with Red Balloon. The painting was described as an "iconic image of a girl reaching out for a heart-shaped balloon" – and as one might expect, it sold for a considerable amount: $1.4 million.
What no one expected was that moments after the gavel fell, the painting self-destructed, running through a shredder that was secretly hidden in the artist's frame by the artist some time ago. Banksy himself summed up the stunt with a video of the picture going through the shredder (and the faces of shocked onlookers) with the caption "going, going, gone."
"It appears we just got Banksy-ed," Alex Branczik, Sotheby's senior director of contemporary art, said in the news release.
Banksy followed up the big event with a release of an Instagram video that showed him installing the shredder into the frame a few years back – apparently a failsafe should the piece ever go up for auction. That video came captioned with a Picasso quote:
"The urge to destroy is also a creative urge."
What remains unknown is exactly how the shredding was pulled off at the exact right time, moments after the sale. The most popular theory is that it was triggered by a remote mechanism.
The painting itself – with its $1.4 million price tag – was tied for first place with another Banksy piece that was sold in 2008.
On its own, that would probably stand as the greatest prank in the history of fine art. And that's not bad, considering this is the latest of many pranks and unusual stunts the anonymous British street artist has performed over the years. In 2006, he installed an inflatable version of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner near the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride in Disneyland, and in 2013 he set up a pop-up shop in New York and sold original canvases of his work for $60 apiece. The world of fine art is generally not known for being particularly zany, and so Banksy's efforts are always eye-catching – particularly his most recent adventure in creative destruction.
But on its own, it's not particularly ironic.
However, when one combines the intention of the prank with its mostly likely outcome, one can't help but appreciate the irony.
According to various experts, there are two possible lessons to take away from the self-destructing painting. One take is that it was purely an attention-seeking move, cultivated to bring maximum intrigue and interest to an artist who among other things is known for being extremely mysterious.
Dan Chrichlow, creative director of the creative management agency Dutch Uncle, is one such skeptic.
“I think the auction house knew it was going to happen. I think the whole thing was created. They check everything,” he said. “I like the fact that Banksy did it and created a whole story, which is a very Banksy thing to do. But it doesn’t feel authentic.”
Others in the art community, however, take a more charitable view, noting that Banksy has no shortage of ways to get attention – and that shredding his most iconic painting is making a bigger statement about art, ownership and his feelings about an image he first stenciled on a wall in East London that is now heading into a private collection with a $1.4 million price tag. Roger Gastman, the street art expert and curator for MOCA’s popular 2011 “Art In The Streets” exhibition, noted in an email to the L.A. Times that Banksy has now cemented himself as "one of today’s preeminent art market critics. "
Which gets to the ironic part: the fact that nearly everyone agrees that by destroying the iconic painting, Banksy's prank has more than likely skyrocketed its market value.
Sotheby's, for its part, says it is still working with the purchaser on how to move forward with a technically destroyed but highly historical piece of artwork – but among artists, critics, collectors and insiders, there is near universal agreement that the remaining pieces of the painting purchased Saturday are no longer tied for first place: They are, in monetary terms, almost certainly the most valuable piece(s) of art that Banksy has ever created.
The website MyArtBroker.com, which resells Banksy pieces, agreed the piece had suddenly become much more valuable after the prank.
“This is now part of art history in its shredded state, and we’d estimate Banksy has added at a minimum 50 percent to its value, possibly as high as being worth £2 million ($2.6 million) plus,” the website said in a statement.
One can prank capitalism, but it's hard to beat some of its laws, particularly the one about supply and demand.
Banksy's real point? Probably nobody can say but the artist himself.
Still, whether he likes capitalism or loathes it, he is quite good at it, particularly when it comes to building the brand.
“Banksy continues to amaze me. The king stays the king,” Gastman said.