Banksy For Business People

Sometime around 2007-2008, I stumbled onto Banksy’s artwork. His street-art style pieces stood out amidst the volatile social and political backdrop of the time in the way that only great artwork can. I’ve (passively) followed his work ever since. When his “Girl with Balloon” painting went up for auction, I hadn’t paid much attention until it stole the headlines with what happened next.

Banksy has long stood against selling his artwork. Consider it an aspect of his aesthetic, apparent by his regular willingness to make the world his gallery. If you missed the news, the short version goes: Sotheby’s auctioned off a rare Banksy painting for $1.4 million. Upon the announcement of the deal, the frame itself activated – dropping the picture into a hidden shredder that destroyed most of the picture. Banksy had struck again, with the Sotheby’s auction room becoming his latest gallery. Do see the video 

Somewhat counterintuitively, the price of the recently shredded painting was estimated to double in value from its recent selling price. There’s a similarly priceless lesson here we can learn. In the book The Elephant in the Brain, the authors dedicate an entire chapter to dissecting the evolutionary psychology of art. They argue that art has both an intrinsic quality (our understanding of the skill required to create the work), and an extrinsic quality (our understanding of others ability to discern that a piece is truly great/special/desirable/etc.). Banksy’s skill gives the painting some intrinsic value, but everyone talking about “what happened at the Sotheby’s auction” adds a healthy extrinsic premium to its price. Extrinsic qualities become the true focal point beyond some intrinsic threshold.

Since our businesses are filled with subjective concepts (ex. how much is a financial plan really worth? How about that money manager?), we can relate to having an intrinsic and extrinsic level of awareness. Too often we focus on the intrinsic concepts of sound design – which matter greatly, but don’t require much discernment by the average consumer. At the end of the day, these things can be hard to tell apart beyond extreme cases. Therefore, what matters most is that we pay extra attention to the extrinsic concepts of our products and services by asking, “What will make someone talk to another person about this? How does it matter to a person that their knowledge of it compares/relates to other people’s knowledge (or lack thereof) about the same thing?”

Banksy’s art consistently bends some aspect of our expectations. He has a gift for engineering the need to have a conversation. We can’t aim for his heights in popularity, but we can target the extrinsic qualities of our work. A financial plan can be helped when we acknowledge how few people actually have a written document that they understand. An investment strategy is only as good as our ability to stick to it, so understanding who else is on our philosophical camp matters greatly (ex. value investors love to know they’re keeping Warren Buffett as company). Banksy knows how to keep that extrinsic quality central to his work, and we can do the same. Shredding frames optional.

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