There’s Always Hope, if…

We can get our heads on straight

The headline caught my eye: “Banksy shreds a painting, and its value likely rises.”

Even if you sampled the media fanfare, some background helps. Banksy is an unnamed but not unnoticed U.K. street artist. The painting, Girl with Balloon, first appeared in 2002 as a stencil on a London building. Accompanying it was the motto “There is always hope.” In 2006 the artist produced a spray paint version of the work. Earlier this month Sotheby’s auctioned it for $1.4 million. Thereupon Banksy shredded much of the painting by activating a device hidden within its frame. The escapade is preserved on Instagram.

Fortune, the business magazine, reports that the going price of the now-shredded work, re-titled Love Bin, will likely double. There’s a special irony here, because Banksy claims to have executed the shredding to protest the inflated cost of art sold at major auctions. So has Banksy been co-opted by market forces? Maybe not. He (or she) might have foreseen the uptick in what the work would fetch and anticipated that the protest would become more effective.

Curious and curiouser! What are we to make of all this?

Let’s start with the positive. Performance artists want to reach ordinary people where they work and live. Beauty is central to human flourishing, and access to good art plays a key role. Still, there are three caveats to register.

First, a Sotheby’s auction measures prices. It’s a market mechanism and open to manipulation. But the price of an art work is not the same as its value. Oscar Wilde warns us about “the cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Second, distinguishing between the price and the value of an art work presupposes that beauty is largely objective. Were it not, its market price would establish its true value. The headline would be right in stating that Banksy’s prank would increase the painting’s “value.”

Third, it’s the value of a work of art, not its price, that mirrors whether or not it is good art. Girl with Balloon is pretty much like several hundred (if not more) attractive pictures that illustrate children’s books. That is was so pricey, and that Love Bin is pricier still, chiefly suggests that far too many of us are willing to pay for a share in the fleeting fame of a celebrity.

Still, and let’s insist on this, “there is always hope.” After all, we can get our heads on straight. We have nothing to lose but our credulity. For a boost, especially in these interesting times of ours, take a look at Giotto’s The Dream of Innocent III. It’s online, anytime, and doesn’t cost a dime.

Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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