Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Joke is on.....who?

     I recently saw Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film by the graffiti artist Banksy. And, wow, was it rich.
First of all, I HIGHLY recommend it. It's fun, well executed, clever and thought provoking - just like Banksy's street art. 

See the film before you read this, otherwise I will spoil it for you!
     The movie starts by telling the story of a rather eccentric frenchman in LA named Thierry, who by chance falls into the street art scene as the movement's unofficial filmographer. The footage is raw, exciting, really get a sense of the evolution of the art, and I found myself more and more thankful that it had been captured on film. You get an extraordinary peek into a world in which only a handful of people really live.
Graffiti mosaic by Space Invader

See it?

     It was illuminating to watch the medium evolve and see, side by side, the different artists and their distinct styles. Of course, any discussion about street art at this level brings up the favorite 1st year art school debate: "What is Art?" Yadda Yadda Yadda.
     To me, the strongest element of the film is that it doesn't feel the need to answer this question. Instead, it gives the audience a bit of a multiple choice selection - is authenticity key? Classical technique? Spontaneity? Critical acclaim? Hype?

     As the story unfolds, Thierry becomes increasingly enraptured by the street art movement and aims to become an artist himself. He stages his own show under the alias of Mr. Brainwash - a body of work consisting of stolen ideas simply repackaged. The critics go wild and he sells over $1 million worth art.

    When this part of the story became evident to me, my heart sank. The whole film until that point had been about an authentic expression, and now this guy was making it all fake. I had a feeling that the arc of the plot was just too good to be true, but the storytelling had been so compelling that I really had wanted to believe it. Then I sunk into the realization that it was all a hoax! A prank! It made perfect up Banksy's alley, that "nothing is as it seems" message that permeates so much of his work.
     It had all been a set-up. Mr. Brainwash was a farce, yet this huge chunk of the art world and it's scenesters had bought it whole heartedly. (The film doesn't outrightly cop to this, but I just know it's true).

    But real or not, Exit just sent my mind spinning, there were so many gems of insight to be gleaned from it. First of all, it was a fantastic treatise on the routine commercialization of authentic, expressive art forms. A few people develop a language, a style, a movement, and others, piggybacking on their success, imitate and mass market it for profit. It's not that I completely object to making money off of an idea (I mean, I'm in the fashion industry), but when something is robbed of it's thoughtfulness purely for the sake of profiteering, it's disgraceful (I made the comparison between the work of Jean Paul Gautier for his couture collection - modern, beautiful, thoughtful, clever - with the abomination that was his crap "line" for Target).
     Theirry (or his character, at least) wasn't necessarily in it for the money. However, that came to him easily, thanks to the hoards of gallery owners, art brokers, and private collectors itching to get a piece to the up-and-coming street art trend. Which brought home another theme of Banksy's work - people often act like sheep, following their leaders, trendsetters and "tastemakers" seemingly without thought. His graffiti as well as his gorilla museum paintings (his earlier work consisted of sneaking his own doctored versions of classic paintings INTO museums and gluing them to the walls) seem to challenge people to open their eyes and at least see what's going on around them. His work reminds me of a great New Yorker cartoon...
    That's what Banksy's work is to me! Of course it's well executed and visually interesting, but really the visual is only an expression of the intellectual. It's more "think about what this image is saying" than it is "look at how interesting this image is." 
      The funny thing about it is if you divert the sheep from walking off the cliff, eventually they will all start following each other again, except now they're going in a different direction. They are still acting mindlessly, following blindly. The documentary frames the street art movement as this rebellious, spirited counter-culture, yet in the end becomes just as commercial and regulated as any other art genre on the auction block at Sotheby. It turns out, you can give people ideas, but you can't make them think for themselves. One of my favorite quotes from the film is from Banksy himself when he says,"I used to tell people to just go out and start making art........I don't do that so much anymore." (Or something to that effect).

      The film got me thinking about how authenticity in creative fields is validated. Theirry says something very profound about his work - that people will ask where he came from, if he has been a working artist for long, but that they will see his value eventually. That really rag a bell for me, as there are so many glaring examples of that philosophy in my own industry. In an age when everyone and their dog is a fashion designer, real credibility seems only attainable if one can stick it out for a while. Fewer stories these days are about designers who have worked their way up the ranks to one day set out on their own; instead it's about the breakout designer who must try to prove himself as time goes on, despite the hype that accompanies every other 'flash in the pan' (I myself am in this latter category). I don't aim to pass judgement on either path, but I think the point the film is making is don't just do something because you think you can, you can market it easily, you have friends who do it, or you have nothing better to do. Don't speak if you don't have anything to say. No one needs more noise in their lives. 

Anyway....there were/are/will be so many great things to think about from this film. GO SEE IT and let's talk!

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