Sunday, January 30, 2011

Brainwashed: "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and Anonymity as a Commodity


Nominated for an Academy Award in the category of "Best Documentary," Exit through the Gift Shop purports to tell the story of Banksy, the well-known British King of Street Art. We're told right from the start that this is "A Banksy Film," but over the course of the film's manic ninety minutes, it evolves into a biopic of Thierry Guetta. Guetta's fortuitous relationship with Space Invader--an early Street Art celebrity--and his relentless obsession with capturing constant footage of his everyday life make him a kind of videographic mascot for an ever-larger group of artists. Guetta gains the trust of a circle of international Street Artists, and from the income generated by what appears to be a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles, is able to follow them around and document everything. After a series of good luck, Guetta (so we are led to believe) develops a friendship with Banksy himself...and the film shifts.

I won't go into all of the twists, but essentially Guetta adopts the moniker "Mr. Brainwash," and goes on to launch an incredibly lucrative art career with a show that becomes the toast of LA's gullible art consumers.

It is impossible to determine whether "Mr. Brainwash" is actually an elaborately constructed con, and many reviews of the movie try to get answers as to whether Banksy himself might be behind everything, tricking audiences to accept the mustachioed charlatan Guetta as a legitimate artist. Regardless, the oscillation between anonymity and celebrity produces one of the most interesting thematic tensions throughout the film. Anonymity began as a necessary condition of doing street art. As more street artists become famous, is the form "over"? If so, what was it? And how can we characterize its relationship to anonymity?


Street Art, which after a history that spans (depending on whose perspective you take) decades, has coalesced suddenly into an international art phenomenon. Banksy is certainly the most famous of its practitioners, but cities around the world have become the canvas for ever more inventive artists. Along the way, it has found itself appropriated by dominant political rhetoric (Shepard Fairey is responsible for the "Hope" Obama posters, ubiquitous during the 2008 campaign), and by the art establishment itself.


Since street art was at its beginnings (and still is) mostly considered a variant of illegal graffiti, anonymity came with the territory. The rapidity with which their work was washed away, torn down, scrubbed clean, and otherwise erased by authorities--in other words, the fleeting nature of their art--became part of the allure. Whereas artists like Christo collaborate with city government officials, planners, architects, and designers to produce installations in cities, it is the anonymity of Street Artists that distinguished them. The aesthetic connections between these two types of artists is minimal--what is important is that they embody what seem to be polar positions when it comes to the artist's relationship to the urban landscape.

But now, Street Art has more mainstream and the art has become insanely marketable and salable. Exit includes footage from Banksy's famously successful show in Los Angeles, where Brangelina are portrayed perusing his works (they spent upwards of $400,000). As it changes, we should consider the stakes of anonymity's decline in general. In a cultural moment where a simple Google search yields results about your job, the value of your house, your social network activity, anything you've ever published anywhere, etc, the very possibility of anonymity has dwindled. That seems to have been one of the most amazing things about Street Art (and at least remains mostly true about Banksy). The notion that there were caped crusaders jumping across rooftops to prank the cities of the world is almost unthinkable now that street artists are coming out and declaring their identities.

If there is any doubt about the transformation of anonymity into a valuable commodity, consider the one exception--the one artist not only clinging, but seemingly pretty comfortable in maintaining his anonymity--that is, Banksy himself. As more street artists attempt to claim their legitimacy by selling artworks in galleries to the adoring public, Banksy remains in the shadows in Exit.

And he's still the most successful, arguing quite persuasively though surprisingly humbly throughout the film (and especially after "Mr. Brainwash's" enormous and gut-bustingly hilarious success) that he remains one of the last authentic street artists.

With all sorts of speculation about whether Banksy will take off the mask if he wins an Oscar for this perplexing, funny, and often beautiful film (you have to hand it to Mr. Guetta--he got some great footage), I sure hope he's willing to stay behind the curtain.

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