Like many, I was shocked last week when a painting “Girl With Balloon” by the British street artist Banksy sold for a record $1.4 million at Sotheby’s auction house only to instantly self-destruct. Like many, I’d never heard of the enigmatic artist before his stunt flashed across the world’s news feeds, showing a painting of a girl with a heart shaped balloon slipping through the bottom of its frame and being destroyed by a shredder as a wealthy, art-loving audience looked on.
I laughed. Then I contemplated what it means to live in a world that often values paint and paper more than people, the temporal more than the timeless. Would those same spectators have bid as high for the life of a Syrian refugee? Or an African orphan? Or an immigrant child trapped at the U.S. border? More importantly, would I have bid as high?
It doesn’t take a million-dollar art budget to bear the burden of answering the question. We, working-class ordinary people, answer it every day when we drive by the person standing in the median begging for bread only to fill our shopping carts with cheap, disposable goods that neither satisfy our needs nor recognize the needs of others.
We answer it when we spend our lives pursuing short-term financial rewards rather than pursuing long-overdue justice for those caught in the tempestuous wake of our lascivious lifestyles. “There’s an elephant in the room,” said a flier passed around at a 2006 Banksy exhibit in LA featuring a live, 8,000-pound painted elephant, “20 billion people live below the poverty line.”
According to Smithsonian magazine, animal rights activists were incensed about the paint on the elephant, which washed off. But are we equally incensed that nearly half of the world’s population lives in poverty (even if that number is closer to 3 billion)? That number includes an estimated 22,000 children who die each day simply because they are poor. Banksy’s iconic image of a love-shaped balloon slipping from a small child’s grasp reminds us to wonder where all the love has gone.
The church too must grapple with this question. “Love God. Love others,” was the priority list Jesus gave his followers (Mark 12:30-31). How well are we living it in a time when the economic disparity between those who have enough and those who don’t has never been greater? When there are more refugees (more than 60 million) than at any time since World War II? Where has our love gone?
“Look at this,” I called my two youngest children over to my computer screen last week as I explained Banksy’s prank and showed them a video of the crowd’s stunned reaction as the painting slipped from its frame only to emerge in shreds.
“Did he get any money?” my 8-year-old asked.
“Probably not,” I said. “But he got the attention of the whole world—the whole world.”
Would that our love and our lives would do the same.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The Christmas Cradle, the first book in her Lantern Hill Farm picture-book series, is available now. Connect at www.meadowrue.com