It’s easy in my profession to become a little too engaged in the art world. To assume that every bit of industry gossip, auction result or new exhibition is common knowledge, and furthermore is interesting to my non-arty friends and family. How often I am wrong! But for the last month, the name on everybody’s lips has been Banksy. From the very first articles questioning Banksy’s involvement and knowledge, to the latest video from the artist himself* claiming that the shredding didn’t actually go to plan, the events of Friday 5th October and beyond have been a masterclass in self-promotion. So, I want to look at the story from a PR point of view. I’ve been out of the business for some time now, but it’s a bit like an obscure tropical disease: once it’s in your blood, it never quite leaves you. What follows is a bit of analysis on what happened, and how I believe Banksy turned it into arguably the most successful PR stunt the art world has ever seen.
For anybody averse to newspapers, or that has been living in Outer Mongolia for the last few weeks, here’s the story. Banksy’s ‘Girl with Balloon’ was featured as the final lot at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on Friday 5th October. As the hammer went down at just over one million pounds, an alarm was triggered. Guests then watched in dismay as the piece slid down through a hidden shredder within the painting’s frame, thus almost completely destroying the artwork. Cue uproar/shock/hilarity!
Before looking at how the campaign was such a success, we have to ask what Banksy’s motives are and what is he trying prove. Based upon his past exploits, we can assume the aim was to increase Banksy’s name as not only an artist, but a political and social activist and commentator. This was clearly an anti-establishment statement, highlighting his own distain for the art market as a whole: those galleries, auction houses and dealers he so heavily relies on for his fame and fortune, but that reduce his work to a mere commodity. He is also most likely pointing to the absurdity of this graffiti art – so readily vandalised on the streets – being treated as fine art, complete with museum-style guilt frame for emphasis. Also while he’s at it, why not poke fun at the people who pay such huge amounts for his work! It is by no means his first slur on the establishment, my favourite being in 2004 when he covertly hung his own works in some of the world’s most important museums, including Tate Britain, and The Louvre.
Without getting too far into the metrics and models that can be used to evaluate a campaign, the key things to examine are audience, reach and influence. For the purposes of this blog, we will measure these in terms of column inches, number of views, and likes and shares on social media. Apart from the obvious shock tactics, and the very public nature of the stunt, the real genius of this campaign was its four phase approach over a two-week period, gaining enormous global media traction and social media chatter.
Phase 1: The shredding
The concept of destroying an artwork to make a political and social point, or to create a new artwork is by no means new. In the 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg asked Willem de Kooning, a much more established artist, for one of his drawings. Over the course of a month, Rauschenberg carefully erased all traces of pencil, charcoal and crayon, and re-titled the work ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’. This now sits in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Art.
However, there are in my mind, a few things that made this stunt such a success. Firstly, the timing: the auction took place during Frieze Week – arguably the most important week in the London art calendar, with the biggest international collectors descending on the capital. It is also a period when journalists have time, space and inclination to talk about art, far more than any other time of year. According to Sotheby’s, it was stipulated by the seller (who rumour has it was Jo Brooks, Banksy’s PR – the irony is not lost on anyone) that this must be in the more high-profile evening sale, and hung at the time of bidding. Neither are highly unusual for a famous piece, but more intriguing given the low estimated sale price of £200-300k. And at such a high-profile event, at the end of the evening, with the piece on full view, and the immediacy of the shredding after the hammer, the shock tactics were all the more dramatic. The choice of painting was also key, as in 2017, ‘Girl with Balloon’ was voted the UK’s best loved artwork. So by choosing a favourite, Banksy guaranteed consumer interest.
The shock and rumour from the stunt itself resulted in a press frenzy. From articles suggesting Banksy himself was there and pressed the remote to set off the alarm and shred the piece, to those questioning whether it was a mistake, or even Sotheby’s’ doing. It was this mystery surrounding the first 24 hours that really upped the hype. By the morning of 6th October, the ‘shredding’ story had appeared in and on almost every newspaper and website across the globe, and on numerous TV outlets, including BBC, Sky, CNN and NBC. What’s more, the social media chatter – from the second the shredding occurred – was palpable. I was hoping some PR or media agency would have measured the total reach of the print, online and social chatter, but in the absence of this, let’s just call it ‘shed loads’.
Phase 2: Admittance of guilt
Phase two came just 24 hours later, once many people had formed their own opinions, when Banksy admitted the shredding was his doing. The video released on his Instagram account showed the artist stating that he inserted the shredder ‘in case’ the piece was ever put up for auction. Now when this addition to the frame occurred nobody is sure, but I like the rather romantic thought that this was premeditated in 2006, when he created the piece and gave it to ‘Jo’. More likely, though, is that this artwork was altered more recently, in cahoots with ‘Jo’, just prior to approaching Sotheby’s. As soon as the video was released, almost every news outlet re-covered the story. The video itself currently has 2.1 million likes on Banksy’s Instagram and 1.3 million views on his official YouTube video. Not bad for a lowly street artist.
Phase 3: A new artwork is born
A week later, another little gem came in the form of a new certificate of authenticity issued by Pest Control, Banksy’s authentication body. This was for the newly formed artwork, ‘Love is in the Bin’, dated 5th October 2018. Not so huge for the nationals, but a juicy story for the arts press, who delighted in reporting this as the first work of art ever created live at auction. Some even went as far as to call it ‘performance art’, although I address this in more detail in my next blog about Sotheby’s.
Phase 4: The final stroke
Fast forward another week, just as the art world had come to terms with it, red faces and all, he releases ‘Shred the Love: The Director’s Cut’. This video, seemingly sent around news outlets rather than released on his social media – a clever move in itself to make the key news sites write yet another story – dropped the bomb that he actually intended to shred the whole piece. With subtitles saying ‘In rehearsals it worked every time’, Banksy insinuated that the stunt was not, in fact a complete success. Cue over three million YouTube views, and a raft of national and international press yet again.
A master class in PR, whether you approve, appreciate or denigrate, one thing is for sure: Banksy cleverly got the whole world talking about his art for the month of October. I do find the messaging slightly at odds though. By re-authenticating the piece (which is now estimated at two to three times the value of the initial painting), he is somewhat undermining his anti-establishment views. Saying that, isn’t this the sort of egocentric hypocrisy we all know and love in the art world? And if you’re wondering how I think Sotheby’s did with the whole fiasco, watch this space for my next blog.
*For ease of reading, I have used the pronoun ‘him’, but this represents Banksy the brand: the whole Pest Control and publicity team, not just Banksy himself/herself/themselves (and that choice of pronoun is for a later blog).