Previous Posts: October 2018

AI art (ctd.)

October 29 2018

Image of AI art (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's/Obvious

After the sale of the 'artificial intelligence' Portrait of Edmond Bellamy at Christie's in New York for $432k, many people were asking; 'but is it art'? In fact, the question we should have been asking was; 'is it AI?' To which the answer, according to this interview in Artnome by Jason Bailey with one the artwork's creators, Hugo Caselles-Dupré, appears to be 'no':

JB: Why did you say, “Creativity is not only for humans,” implying that AI was autonomously making the work, even when you knew that was a false statement?

What about your narrative that “creativity isn’t only for humans”? Were you playing up the machines and now saying that is not what you meant?

HC: Yeah. Exactly. I think that's what happens when you're doing something and nobody cares, then you’re just goofing around and doing really clumsy stuff. And then when everybody has this view, then they go back to what you did before and then you have to justify it. We kept justifying, because we still think that this part of the GAN operator that creates the images is really interesting and there is some form of creativity there … and we just thought it was cool to just do it like this. For us, it was just a funny way to talk about it. 

JB: You didn't know you were going to be under the microscope.

HC: If we knew we were going to have to 400 press articles on what we do, we most definitely would have done that. But at [that] moment we were like, 'Yeah, it’s silly, okay, whatever, let's put this.' But retrospectively, when we see that, we are like, 'That's a big mistake.'

JB: All you can do is admit the mistake. What creative behavior do GANs exhibit? Many feel they don’t exhibit creative behavior.

HC: For me, the fact that you give it a certain number of examples and then you can continue to see results in the latent space, for me, the gap has to be [bridged]. So necessarily, there's some kind of, like, inventing something. So I guess there is some kind of creativity for me… because creativity is a really broad term, so it can be misunderstood, because creativity is something really related to humans. But at the basic, low level, it was given a set of images, it can create images that does not belong to the training set. So that's something that is transformed by the model, and there's some kind of creativity. So it's just a way you interpret the word "creativity." Maybe from certain perspectives you can say it's creativity. 

JB: So it sounds like you believe it is dependent upon your personal definition of creativity? Some people say GANs are just are approximate distributions and that is not really creative - but it sounds like you think it is creative?

HC: Yeah. It's like, whatever you think creativity is, if we fit on the same definition, we are obliged to agree on something. So if we go to the same definition that creativity is something like, let's say, this ‘Concept A,’ then GANs will fit this concept. Or not? It's just a point of view thing, I guess -- and I understand that people can argue that [it’s] not great, we understand that, but it's just a point of view.

Update - David Knowles on Twitter sums it up perfectly:

If it was AI then the IQ was very low.

Brexit and museums

October 26 2018

Image of Brexit and museums

Picture: NPG

If you're not 'British' and work for a UK museum, watch out; the government wants to know about you. I've learnt that the Department for Culture Media and Sport has asked nationally funded museums to gather information on the nationality of their employees, to "think about the implications of Brexit". The language of 'thinking' about employees sounds mundane enough, but if you think about it, it's pretty insidious. It leaves the door open for the government to take action against people purely on the basis of their nationality.

What's interesting about the DCMS request is the language they've used. I'm told that DCMS has said it only 'expects' museums to gather this information for them. In other words, it's not framed as an instruction, because the government likes to maintain the pretence that nationally funded museums are 'arms length bodies', in whose affairs it does not directly interfere.

Of course, in practice that's not the case. You might think that the nationality of who museums employ is up to the museums themselves. But in the era of Brexit it's not.

If I was a museum director, I'd tell the government where to go. But alas that's not what has happened at the National Portrait Gallery at least; there, staff have been told that while the museum "values all colleagues", they're still expected to submit information about their nationality. Sad times. 

AI art (ctd.)

October 26 2018

Image of AI art (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

My prediction that the 'first AI work to be sold at auction' would fly above its estimate of £5k-£7k has come to pass; it made £337k at Christie's yesterday. Truly, there is no shame in the contemporary art market; what a woeful blancmange of a painting.

Now, I don't deny at all that their is a genuine and laudable creative process behind the concept of art-producing AI. To that extent, what we're really being asked to appreciate is the human creativity behind it. But the much vaunted 'AI' artwork at Christie's, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, is little more than a composite blurring of the 15,000 portraits fed into the programme in the first place. It's you or I fiddling around on Photoshop for an hour, just scaled up. A regular cry against much contemporary art is 'my child could have done that'. But now we can replace that with; 'my laptop could have done that'. 

In none of the breathless reporting of the auction result will you find any analysis of how easy it is to game the contemporary art market at auction.  Let us suppose you have a direct financial interest in an artist. You may be that artist. You may be their agent. You may own a number of their works. If you want to set a new, higher value for that artist, then the combined opacity and visibility of the auction market is perfect for you. The contemporary art market is driven by auction values; they take the place of stock indices, and are widely seen to be 'authentic'. But everything else is done in secret. You can consign anonymously, buy anonymously, and bid anonymously. You, and others, can bid on artworks without any disclosure, driving up value. If by some misfortune you end up being the last bidder, then no matter; a new high 'value' has been established, often with global press coverage, and all it has cost you is the price of the auction house's commission. 

Update - here's an article on The Verge showing how the 'collective' behind the picture sold at Christie's seems actually to have borrowed the code from, er, someone else:

[...] for members of the burgeoning AI art community, there’s another attribute that sets the Portrait of Edmond Belamy apart: it’s a knock-off.

The print was created by Obvious, a trio of 25-year-old French students whose goal is to “explain and democratize” AI through art. Over the past year, they’ve made a series of portraits depicting members of the fictional Belamy family, amplifying their work through attention-grabbing press releases. But insiders say the code used to generate these prints is mostly the work of another artist and programmer: 19-year-old Robbie Barrat, a recent high school graduate who shared his algorithms online via an open-source license.

Update II - there's an interesting article from Jerry Saltz in Vulture. He makes the important point that although Christie's promoted this as 'a first', really it's anything but:

I’ve seen the process done with landscapes, flowers, dogs, movie stars, clouds, buildings, and food. This poster is an individual image, but it’s not unusual to see it done in grids or series of images printed out. People have done it with Hollywood blockbusters arranged by superhero, color, setting, and even credits. It’s been done with porn films that render one Ur-orgy, superstar, or set of sexual fetishes. I’ve seen every abstract painting reduced to one meta-abstraction and seen it done with these same abstract paintings morphing endlessly one into the next like a hypnotic screensaver. Benjamin Edwards has been doing it in paintings since the late 1990s — compiling all the Starbucks in Seattle, for example, into one wild structure. Artists Jason Salavon and the late Jeremy Blake were doing this sort of thing in video and painting back then too. Julie Mehretu’s paintings are said to be handmade versions of the same visual overlay strategies. Really, this generic tic has never not been around since these sorts of digital files, compiled pictures, found footage, and captured images became a genre. World famous photographer Thomas Ruff has made, shown, and sold pictures like this for almost 20 years. In other words, it is a flat-out lie that this is the “first portrait generated by an algorithm to come up for auction.” The question is, why did so many collectors go crazy for it?

As to his last question, I think it's an assumption that 'collectors' did go crazy for the picture. I think it's more likely to have been speculators and vested interests.

That said, there was of course 'a first' in action at Christie's; the first time such a work had made a ton of money. And what made it 'valuable' in the first place was the fact that Christie's chose it for inclusion in an auction. That act was part of the art itself, if you like, just as Sotheby's auction in London was an integral part of Banksy's new work, Love is in the Bin.  

But let's think about what that artistic 'moment' actually said about the market and indeed the art world. Earlier this week I went to the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester to give the 49th Pilkington Lecture (and I only found out afterwards that the first lecture had been given by none other than Kenneth Clarke - which pleased me no end). The topic of my talk was 'Why connoisseurship matters', and as part of my explanation of the history of connoisseurship I touched on the controversy of 'the canon' in art historical academia; the idea that the canon as promoted to us by art history in the 19th and early 20th Centuries was almost exclusively one shaped by white, privileged men, from Western Europe with Christian beliefs. In other words, deeply conservative.

And what was 'the first' AI artwork to make a ton of money? Why, a portrait of a white, privileged man from Western Europe. He was actually given the title 'Count'. Isn't it a bizarre contradiction that the painting hailed as revolutionary leap in art should be something so backward looking? 

Museum image fees (ctd.)

October 23 2018

Image of Museum image fees (ctd.)

Picture: AIC

Good news; the Art Institute of Chicago has announced that it is making over 44,000 images of artworks from its collection 'open access'. That  means you can use them for free in any way you want. 

Critics of open access working in UK museums say that institutions like the AIC can afford to do this, because they charge for entry. UK museums, so the argument goes, cannot afford to give away their images for free, because they have to support free entry. But not all open access museums charge for entry; the Nationalmuseum in Sweden, which makes thousands of its images open access, has now introduced free entry. So it is in fact possible to have both free physical entry, and free digital entry.

We can get a glimpse into the UK's nationally funded museums' mindset through an interesting document recently made available through a Freedom of Information request from my colleague Richard Stephens. In advance of the House of Lords debate on image fees last month, only one UK museum made a submission to the government in favour of selling images; the V&A. Predictably, they relied on the point that many open access museums also charge for entry. And they cited Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum as their main example. You can read the submission here (it's at the end of a large number of documents released as part of the same FoI request).

But let's look at the numbers first. Is it as simple as saying the V&A is worse off than the Rijksmuseum, and thus cannot afford to give its images away for free? No. The V&A's total government subsidy last year was £40.2m (you can read the accounts here). A large part of that subsidy is given especially to subsidise free entry. It represents 42% of the V&A's total income of £95.3m. The Rijksmuseum, which charges for entry, receives a significantly smaller government subsidy, of €15.5m (in 2017, accounts available here). This represents only 26% of its total income of €58m. UK museums do well from public subsidy by international standards. We need not believe the V&A's insistence that it needs to sell images in order to support free entry. 

Finally, the V&A in its submission defending their right to sell images made a crucial point in favour of open access. They said:

Where British museums must work hard to generate revenue from assets (such as the IP rights in their images) to supplement grant-in-aid, the Rijksmuseum is primarily concerned with driving visitor numbers through its doors and thus raising ticket revenue. The Rijksmuseum makes all its images available to download for free because it knows that the more people that it enables to see* its images, the more people will be likely to pay €17.50 for entry to the museum. 

In other words, the V&A agrees that open access increases visitor numbers; the more people see images of a collection, the more people want to go and visit that collection. This is an important concession. But you might think from reading their statement that the V&A does not want to increase visitor numbers. Instead, they appear to be more interested in maintaining their ability to use their public collection as a commercial entity.

*their italics. 

£7.8m Leighton House museum refurbishment

October 23 2018

Image of £7.8m Leighton House museum refurbishment

Picture: BDP

New plans for a £7.8m refurbishment of the Leighton House museum in London have been announced. Due to be completed in 2021. More here

New Fitzwilliam director

October 23 2018

Picture: Cambridge University

Congratulations to Luke Syson, who has been appointed the new director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. He joins from the Met in New York - and previously the National Gallery in London, where he curated that extraordinary Leonardo show - and takes over from Tim Knox, who is now director of the Royal Collection. More here

Art historian's diary (ctd.)

October 23 2018

Image of Art historian's diary (ctd.)

Picture: via TAN

My October 'diary' column for The Art Newspaper has gone online, and is available here. The November column is in the printed paper now, and will be online next month. 

Theodoor Van Loon exhibition

October 23 2018

Image of Theodoor Van Loon exhibition

Piccture: Bozar

The first exhibition devoted to the Flemish Caravaggist Theodoor Van Loon has opened at the Bozar centre for fine arts in Brussels. Says the blurb:

Theodoor van Loon was one of the first painters from the Southern Netherlands to be deeply influenced by the art of Caravaggio. Like his contemporary Rubens, Van Loon developed a powerful, original style and throughout the whole of his career he remains marked by the Italian masters.

For the very first time this exhibition brings you into contact with the work of this atypical artist. By placing his paintings alongside those of his contemporaries (Rubens, Barocci, Bloemaert) the show reveals the particular role Van Loon played in his era.

Until 13th January 2019. More " target="_blank">here

Murder in the Gainsborough family (ctd.)

October 23 2018

Podcast: TAN

The latest Art Newspaper podcast discusses the story about the newly uncovered murders in Thomas Gainsborough's family, and features yours truly. 

The research is a central feature of a new exhibition on the young Gainsborough at Gainsborough House Museum in Sudbury, Suffolk, where the artist grew up. 

Trump art (ctd.)

October 23 2018

Video: CNN

President Trump has hung a new portrait of himself in the White House, playing cards with other Republican presidents, including a grinning Nixon. More in the video above from CNN. When it comes to presenting US presidents, the artist Andy Thomas says he always wants to 'make them look nice, and flatter them if I can'. 

'Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill'

October 23 2018

Video: Strawberry Hill

There's a fascinating new exhibition at Strawberry Hill in Middlesex, the home of the famed 18th Century British art historian and collector, Horace Walpole. For the first time in over 170 years, the celebrated Gothic fantasy house can be seen as it was in Walpole's day, with many of his artworks in the positions that he designed for them. The show runs until 24th February, 2019. More here. The catalogue by Silvia Davoli, who has spent many years tracking down Walpole's collection, is available to buy here

Very sadly, the portrait of the Duke of Buckingham by Rubens, which we featured on Britain's Lost Masterpieces and which once belonged to Walpole, was not available for loan.  

Art history socks

October 23 2018

Image of Art history socks

Picture: AHN reader

They're selling Christmas puddings in my local Tesco already, so it's good timing that a reader sends in these art history socks, a perfect gift for your art history loved one. I particularly like the Botticelli ones; available here

Shredding Banksy (ctd.)

October 18 2018

Video: Banksy

There's a new video from Banksy, in which the artist suggests that the entire picture was meant to be shredded. Not so sure.

But the most interesting thing is that this new video confirms the first video (which Banksy released immediately after the Sotheby's sale) was not the full picture. So to speak. As I pointed out at the time, the shredding mechanism we were initially shown (with a series of pantomime razor blades) would not have actually worked. And in the new video we see a very different mechanism, using rollers, which would appear to be more plausible. 

So why go to all the trouble of making two films? Why create one shredding mechanism purely for show? 

Incidentally, a reader writes wondering what the taxman will have to say about all this:

Sotheby's claim on their website that after the gavel fell, Banksy created a new work of art. If it is new, then it should attract VAT at the standard rate on the hammer price. 

If the vendors claim that the picture was a gift back in 2006,  HMRC will point out  that the electric cutting device is a new addition, integral to the artwork, so that the net proceeds would be subject to income tax.

A minefield!

Update - it all comes down to the timing of the 'creation'. Another reader writes:

“Sotheby's claim on their website that after the gavel fell, Banksy created a new work of art. If it is new, then it should attract VAT at the standard rate on the hammer price. “

The new work of art was created AFTER the painting was sold (assuming reframing and insertion of the shredder is not creating a new artwork) so on that basis I am afraid I disagree with your correspondent. 

Of course, if it is actually fresh from Banksy’s Studio then I am sure he will be accounting for VAT on the proceeds; only the Sotheby’s invoice will not state this so the purchaser will not be able to reclaim the VAT when she exports it home to the Middle East. 

“If the vendors claim that the picture was a gift back in 2006,  HMRC will point out  that the electric cutting device is a new addition, integral to the artwork, so that the net proceeds would be subject to income tax.”

Again, it depends who the vendor is. If I as a private individual invite Banksy to amend a piece of art he gave me a decade ago and then I sell it, as a one-off, then I am unlikely to be trading, so therefore am within the CGT regime. Interestingly, machinery - like antique clocks or cars - is free of CGT too, so if (and it is a big if though maybe not if it is ‘integral’ as your correspondent suggests) the vendor can argue that it is a machine on account of the shredder then it is entirely tax free. Machinery is CGT free as it is regarded as having only a short life, the picture itself certainly had a short life... And as the sale took place before the shredder revealed itself the vendor’s profit has nothing to do with the ‘unusual’ reframing. The idea that reframing a picture and reselling it a decade later brings you into trading is too far-fetched for me. 

Shredding Banksy (ctd.)

October 15 2018

Sound: TAN

The latest Art Newspaper podcast discusses the Banksy shredding, with Anny Shaw and Ben Luke; it's well worth a listen. As you may know by now, the work has been re-authenticated by Banksy, and is now titled 'Love is in the Bin'. The successful bidder has agreed to pay for the work. Sotheby's have put it on display again, and say that Banksy didn't destroy a work of art, but created one. Everyone is happy. But as Ben Luke observes, this undermines the idea that Banksy was trying to stick two fingers up to the art market. It was always, as I theorised last week, about the money.

The TAN podcast interviews one of the underbidders, Jonathan Cheung from the Maddox Gallery. He says he bid on the picture because it was voted the UK's 'most popular image'. As I've said before, that poll (designed to sell Samsung TVs) was just a confection. But in this smoke and mirrors market, facts aren't as important as headlines. Banksy must be eternally grateful to Samsung. 

Naturally, the question of value is discussed; is the shredded work now worth 'more'? Jonathan Cheung isn't sure it is, but Ben Luke is. For what it's worth, I agree with Ben; whatever the ethical and market questions that this whole affair has triggered, there's no doubting that the stunt has been a triumphant success. Art historically, I really can see this work becoming established as something that stands the test of time. It's infinitely more interesting than a spot painting. 

But I still think all those questions are worth asking. Ben Luke asks the key one; was this really a work from 2006? Jonathan Cheung says that for him, part of the appeal of the painting at Sotheby's was the fact that it was a unique work - thought to be the only 'one of one' of Girl with Balloon - and from relatively early in the genesis of the composition. So the date matters.

But since it is now widely suggested that (as first reported by AHN) the picture was consigned by his publicist, Jo Brooks, and that it was authenticated by the artist (or his representatives), to what extent can we believe the whole story? It was interesting to hear in the podcast that Sotheby's say the provenance of the painting was true to the best of their knowledge. In other words, they don't know for sure either. 

The answer is we just have to take it all on trust. In an excellent article, Jan Dalley explores this aspect further in the FT

With work by living artists, the trust system is bolstered by the simple fact of the artist’s say-so. But what does an apparently harmless stunt such as Banksy’s do to this deeper system? That iteration of the “Girl with Balloon” was estimated at £200,000-£300,000 because, we were told, it was not one of the thousands of cheap prints of that very well-known image but a unique work made in 2006, and dedicated in the artist’s hand. We believed that — as did the buyer — because Banksy and Pest Control said so.

But if the work was booby-trapped, essentially a giant prank, which bits of it were “genuine”? Why should the work have been the work, if the frame wasn’t the frame? Never mind that a new artwork has been created, and that the lucky buyer finds herself in possession of a piece that’s more valuable because of its notoriety: start pulling a single loose thread of this trust system and things unravel fast.

Will the high end contemporary market unravel fast? It's too early to say, but it seems to me that there is something about the opacity and remoteness of the high end contemporary art market which is similar to the pre-2008, under-regulated financial market. People are paying a lot of money for things they don't entirely understand, and cannot always get reliable information about. As long as the prices keep going up, everything's ok.

Will Banksy's trick cause people to ask the probing questions that might make a crash more likely? Was that his design? Or was he wanting to cash in before the balloon goes up, to borrow his own imagery? The clever thing about Banksy, is that it's likely both. 

Finally, there's a quote from Banksy's 'spokesperson' in The Guardian, denying that Sotheby's had any knowledge of what would happen during the sale:

A spokesperson on behalf of Banksy said: “I can categorically tell you there was no collusion between the artist and the auction house in any shape or form.

"The painting had 27 confirmed bidders on the night. A reputable auction house would never encourage their valued clients to bid on something they knew would be destroyed, their credibility would never recover. Banksy was as surprised as anyone when the painting made it past their security systems.”

Was this spokesperson Jo Brooks, the possible consignor? We mere punters aren't allowed to know. Smoke and mirrors.

Shredding Banksy (ctd.)

October 11 2018

Video: Banksy, via The Guardian

Further to my post below, the cataloguing for Girl with Balloon read:

"Signed and dedicated on the reverse."

I can report that the dedication was, ‘Thanks Jo’, with a heart and a CND symbol.

It may be a coincidence, but Banksy's publicist is Jo Brooks

Art and Brexit (ctd.)

October 10 2018

Image of Art and Brexit (ctd.)

Picture: via OSF Home

The Guardian has run with the Brexit art preferences story I mentioned below last week. But alas it doesn't question the dodgy research behind the results. There's too much of this unquestioning media response to duff art 'research' like this. Another example is the 'Banksy is Britain's favourite painting' story that did the rounds last year, which soon became hard fact, and in turn helped fuel the recent shredding hoo ha at Sotheby's.  

Shredding Banksy

October 8 2018

Video: Banksy, via The Guardian

I enjoyed Banksy's shredding stunt at Sotheby’s Contemporary art Evening sale in London last week. It was clever and amusing. These days we want even our art history to be instant, and there it was; an unprecedented masterpiece of performance art, perfectly packaged to go around the world in moments. Bravo, Banksy. 

But let’s subject this to a bit of instant art historical analysis. What did it mean? What was it really all about? Art? Protest? 

Nope. It's about money.

And not in the way you might think. This wasn’t a wry comment from an artist questioning why people would pay over £1m for a painting made with a stencil. It was about making sure people would go on paying £1m - more, even - for such works. This was a perfect reflection of the hubris and hypocrisy that has infected the upper reaches of the contemporary art market. There’s a lot of money involved. Everyone wants some. Everyone’s in on it. But nobody wants to be the sucker left holding the baby when the party’s over. Behind the smiles, that’s what they’re all frightened about. The show must go on. Banksy made the show go on. That’s why they love him.

Sotheby’s say emphatically that they “had no prior knowledge of this event and were not in any way involved”. I know a lot of people at Sotheby’s, and they’re straightforward, and I believe them. But there are too many questions to not wonder if an over-enthusiastic specialist got carried away. I don’t blame them. Points for initiative.

That said, from an institutional point of view, I can see why Sotheby’s wouldn’t want anything to do with it. Had they been complicit, then straight away you’re looking at fraud; inducing people to bid on an object without telling them what it really was, who really owned it, and who else might therefore be bidding on it. The contemporary auction market relies on a lot of smoke and mirrors, but even that would have been a step too far. There’d have been calls for regulation quicker than you can say shredder. 

Let’s look then at the facts we know so far. The picture shows one of Banksy’s most famous images - in fact probably his most famous. Its fortunes have been helped by the fact that (as the auction house catalogues never tire of saying) “in a poll commissioned last year it was voted Britain's favourite artwork beating such historical heavyweights as John Constable's The Hay Wain and JMW Turner's The Fighting Temeraire.”  Regular readers know that was a phoney poll - organised to sell TVs - and isn’t to be taken seriously. 

The original graffiti was painted on a wall in London but has since been lost. A series of 25 replicas on canvas were made in 2003, and can make big money; one made £344,750 at Bonhams in London earlier this year. More usually they have made in the fifty and sixty thousand pound range, including this example sold at Sotheby’s in 2010 for £51k. Much more numerous are the prints, of which there may be some 600. Until Girl and Balloon made £1.042m at Sotheby’s, the Bonhams price was by some distance the record for that compositioin.

There are some odd things about the picture sold at Sotheby’s though. It was made in 2006, and not part of the original series. As far as I can see, ‘Girl and Balloon’ has usually been a ‘Day Sale’ picture. Maybe Sotheby’s looked at the Bonhams price earlier this year and thought it was worth a shot at the estimate of £200,000-£300,000. As they said in the catalogue, it was ‘unique’ in not being part of the original series, and in their eyes this made it more desirable. Although generally it’s the earlier iterations that tend to command higher prices. Another apparently unique and later (2005) version of the work made only £169k at Sotheby's in 2012. 

The picture was, said the Sotheby’s catalogue note, housed in an ‘artist’s frame’. As the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz said on the BBC this morning, that’s an unusual statement to have in a catalogue. And the frame, irrespective of what ultimately proved to be inside it, must have been in one other respect unusual too; a clunking, heavy thing with a slit in it. Will Gompertz also said that Sotheby’s twice asked the artist - through his market friendly authentication service Pest Control - whether they could open the frame, and were told no. I wonder why they didn’t just ask the owner. The provenance given by Sotheby’s was clear; the picture was acquired by the vendor directly from the artist in 2006, and therefore according to Sotheby’s was not owned by Banksy himself.

The picture was the last lot of the Evening Sale, and thus perfectly timed for Banksy to perform his trick. It was also hanging in the auction room during the sale. Most pictures get taken down from the view when Sotheby’s rearrange their salesroom for evening sales, and only a few get left on the wall. It’s possible Sotheby’s chose to leave the picture on display because it is one of those ‘iconic’ images. But such coincidences must make us wonder whether someone at Sotheby’s knew. 

Until the sale, the Banksy market was, as Naomi Rea and Javier Pes say in ArtNet, ‘down from its high in 2008. The elusive street artist’s auction record was set a decade ago, when his riff on Damien Hirst, ‘Keep It Spotless’ (2007), sold for $1.87 million at Sotheby’s New York.’ By coincidence, the final bid for Girl and Balloon equalled Banksy’s previous auction record. 

After the sale Banksy released a video, above. He said that he installed the shredder ‘a few years ago’, ‘in case it ever came to auction’. A few years ago suggests that the shredder was installed after the picture was acquired in 2006. Batteries are unlikely to last twelve years. As you can see from the screen grab below, the mechanism looks quite complex. 

That said, I don’t know how much we can rely on the video. Although the cross-section of the frame matches that seen on the painting at Sotheby’s, the shredding mechanism itself appears to be phoney; the razor blades are facing the wrong way. Maybe this was later rectified, and the painting was indeed shredded at Sotheby’s. Or somehow a pre-shredded picture was fed out of the bottom of the picture when the mechanism was triggered by remote. (Look at the video a few times, and see for yourself if the shredded part of the picture matches the unshredded part above it.)

Nevertheless, if we take Banksy at his word, that the shredder was installed ‘a few years ago’, and just assumed to be still working by the time of the auction, we can still deduce that the vendor was almost certainly aware of what was going to happen at the Sotheby’s sale. 

The next question, therefore, is what sort of vendor does that? Sotheby’s have, rightly, said that the successful bidder can walk away from their obligation to buy the work. If so, whoever consigned the work took a significant risk, and must have known that they’d potentially lose a significant amount of money. This (combined with the likelihood that the mechanism was installed after the date of acquisition in 2006) implies either that a) the vendor was already rich enough, or b) they’re close to Banksy himself, and were happy to let him do his trick. 

There is another possibility of course; that the vendor was someone with a close interest in sustaining wider Banksy prices. Here’s how it works; the contemporary art market, with its fondness for editions that are easily commodified, loves a good benchmark price. That Banksy/Warhol/Koons made £xm? This one must also be worth £xm! A cleverly consigned work here, a few bids or bidding partners there, and hey presto; you’ve got a new asset value. Even the risk of paying out some auction house commission - if you end up with your picture back - would be worth it for the new price level (and in this case the worldwide PR bonanza.) AHN’s legal adviser would like to make clear I’m not suggesting any of the above happened on this occasion. I’m just speculating.

So where does all this leave us? Immediately after the sale, I said (on Twitter) that I thought Sotheby’s were likely ‘in on it’, not least for the rapid way their specialist came out celebrating the event, and talking up the shredded picture's new, supposedly higher value. But having thought about it further, and assessed the corporate stakes involved for a publicly listed company, I can now believe they weren’t. 

More interesting is what it tells us about Banksy. Is he the anti-market hero the press have made him out to be? Jonathan Jones in The Guardian buys that theory completely. But I doubt it. Banksy depends on the market. If he didn't care about the market, he wouldn't offer the Pest Control authentication service. The only way artists like Banksy and Damien Hirst can get away with churning out the same old compositions is because they're worth something. I don't blame them for doing so - well done them; take the money and run. Artists have always done this. I would.

But let's not pretend this is about anything other than money. Banksy’s line in the video above, ‘in case it ever came to auction’, makes us want to believe that installing the shredder was a protest at the picture's possible sale. But in that case, why did he chose to shred the painting only after the hammer had fallen, and a price record reached? And why only shred half the picture, leaving it intact as an artwork?

A far better protest would have been to press the button during the auction itself. I'd like to have seen Sotheby's explain that one; an artwork self-destructing while people were actually bidding on it. That would have been much more impressive. But it would also have required a little more authenticity, and balls. Whatever you think of his art, Banksy seems as keen to trouser the cash as anyone. And so the show goes on. Bravo, Banksy.

Update - a reader writes:

Perhaps I'm giving Banksy too much credit, but I thought the whole point was to show that, no matter what an artist does, the market will simply absorb it?

Artists love to play the 'bite the hand that feeds' card, earning street cred in arty circles, while their work is simultaneously fed into the junk bond mod/con art market.  That's not new, the 'new' element was the live demonstration of how the market simply absorbed the stunt (plus the demonstration of just how shallow the definition of 'art history' has become).  The artist is no longer important to the art world.

Like you, I doubt if it was meant as a serious protest.  I think it more likely that it was merely a stunt aimed at highlighting a serious problem - the market makes the art and all 'serious' art now is made with the market in mind (even if the route to market is devious and contorted).

Update II - Colin Gleadell in The Telegraph has published an excellent take on the affair. First, he tells us he was tipped off that the lot would 'fly'. Which is interesting since it's been a long time since a Banksy flew at auction. He also noticed that the picture was so heavy it was hung on a special load-bearing baton in the auction room. 

Ironing Artemisia

October 8 2018

Video: National Gallery

The National Gallery has nearly finished conservation of their newly acquired Artemisia Gentileschi Self-Portrait. And very fine it looks too. I went to see it in the conservation studio recently. The overall condition is very good, and the lighting in the picture works well, which you'd only get with the majority of the glazes and layers intact. In the above video you can see the final stages of the re-lining process. Don't be alarmed to see the conservators taking an iron to Artemisia's face - this is part of the process of making the new lining canvas bond to the original canvas. Of course, in the old days this was often done badly, and sometimes you'll see a paint surface with all the impasto squashed flat - like roadkill - from the application of an iron that was on a cotton setting, when it should have been on silk. 

Museo del Prado - the Movie

October 8 2018

Video: Prado

Marvellous. All other museums, do this!

Heni Art Talks (ctd.)

October 8 2018

Video: Heni 

Here's another good Heni Art Talk, with Dr James Fox on the artist behind the WW1 'Dazzle' ships, Norman Wilkinson.  

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