The Art of the Spectacle

Fine Art. Leonard Joel Auction
JMW Turner. Fine Art. Leonard Joel Auction
JMW Turner, Helvoetsluys, 1832 / Wikimedia Commons

Armed with a wet paintbrush in hand, Joseph Turner marched through the crowd towards Helvoetsluys, the painting he’d entered in the 1832 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, positioned next to John Constable’s 15-year long creation, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, a flagship piece that was set to dominate that year. Aware of his competition, Turner approached his own work on the wall and without hesitation jabbed a small bright red mark in the middle, marking a red buoy in the waves of his sombre seascape. Outcry erupted throughout the room, with outraged viewers immediately accusing the artist of publicly defacing his own work, even prompting Constable to remark “he has been in here and fired a gun”. Turner’s act left the crowd wanting to witness the defaced masterpiece, marking the highest viewer attendance in the Royal Academy’s history. 

Dividing opinions and sparking debate, spectacles in the art world continue to excite and are often better remembered than the actual artworks themselves. In the 21st century, these events are often labelled as publicity stunts and can challenge the concept of freedom of speech. An excellent example of this is English artist Damian Hirst’s rise to fame early in his career, subjected to criticism for his use of dead animals. In 1991 he preserved a dead tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde, enraging both animal rights groups and members of the public. Most recently, he produced a series of original paintings which sold to collectors, before offering them the option to choose between the physical painting or an NFT version with the original burned by Hirst himself. This spectacle went viral online, with Hirst criticised for burning millions of dollars’ worth of art. 

Fine Art. Leonard Joel
Banksy’s artwork Love is in the bin which was formerly known as
Girl with Balloon was shredded moments after the winning bid at Sotheby’s London / Alamy

Maurizio Cattelan’s piece Comedian, was quite the talking point at the 2019 Art Basel, when he presented a duct-taped banana on the wall. This could be considered spectacle enough, however it escalated further when a bystander emerged, ripped the banana off the wall, and shoved it into his mouth. Shock rippled through the crowd armed with mobile phones to record the spectacle in action, resulting in a shut down due to health and safety concerns. Capturing the swift attention of the media, buyers flurried, with two further ‘editions’ selling for $120,000 before the price was raised for the third buyer paying $150,000 for a piece of the action. 

Arguably, the biggest spectacle of the 21st century in the art world took place in a London auction room in 2018. As the hammer went down on the last lot for the night, the audience broke out in gasps as a Banksy painting slid through its elaborate gold frame and shredded itself, jamming halfway through. Conducted via a remote-controlled mechanism hidden in the frame, auction staff declared afterward that it had been “Banksy-ed.” The phenomenon went viral, making headlines around the world, with the now shredded work resurfacing on the market 3 years later, selling for 18 times the original asking price, leaving many asking, “why?”. Well, Love is in the Bin has something that Girl with Balloon never had, a spectacular story that perhaps is more famous than the artwork itself. 

LUCY FOSTER / Senior Art Specialist 

Banner Image: Maurizio Cattelan, Comedian / Alamy

November 2022