April 19, 2019

Banksy is the Thomas Kinkade of his Generation

“THE YEAR AFTER ANDY WARHOL DIED, Sotheby’s auctioned ten thousand of his possessions in a sale that lured more than seven thousand potential buyers. It was 1988, so Dick Cavett showed up at the salesroom near the end and quipped about the record prices paid for an armchair designed by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann. The British punk model Matt Belgrano, also in attendance, agreed with Ronald S. Lauder, heir of Estée Lauder, that the main attraction was Warhol’s collection of cookie jars. “The most important things are the cookie jars,” Lauder told the New York Times. They eventually sold for $247,830, principally to the chairman of the board of the North American Watch Company. Another bidder, Stuart Pivar, an eccentric chemist and a friend of Warhol, was unfazed by the escalating prices. All of these effects, these trinkets and art-luxury items, Pivar told the newspaper, “were part of what Andy called his art.” The sale totaled $25 million, the Times noted, twice as much as expected. The auction took place a little more than six months after the Black Monday stock market crash in October of 1987.

“Do you, uh, care?” Gary Indiana asked about the Warhol sale a few weeks later, in one of his final Village Voice art columns. The spectacle of the auction, the attendant chatter about value, what was sold, who bought it, what it all meant about the global economy, the art market, whatever, obscured what the event was really about, Indiana wrote, which was shopping. Warhol bought hoards of things, and in this respect he shared the impulses of Americans everywhere, including working-class men and women in the 1980s who shopped at malls. “The success of the Warhol Auction marks the highest recognition of shopping as a way of life,” Indiana wrote. For a concluding remark, this is both generous and ahead of its time. Thirty years later, contemporary art could be described broadly as a complex form of shopping, where the chatter about value cannot be easily distinguished from the work. Under these conditions, a living Andy Warhol, with all of his cookie jars, might prefer to appear on an episode of Hoarders.

I thought of the Warhol auction last week when someone working with the street artist Banksy remotely activated a shredder embedded in the back of the frame of his spray-painted work, “Girl with Balloon”—right at the moment it sold to an unnamed buyer for $1.4 million at a Sotheby’s sale. The event was met, like the Sotheby’s auction in 1988, with a lot of talk about the art market, who the buyer was, whether the half-shredded work lost or gained value; only this time journalists and Twitter users also wondered if Sotheby’s colluded with Banksy in the stunt. My first thought was the same as Indiana’s when he arrived at the Warhol auction: “Get me out of here.” My second was that Sotheby’s must have colluded. But then I remembered that I don’t care. All auctions, even the spectacular, are short-lived moments of shopping.”

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