May 5, 2010
Elevation: 80m

I saw Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop” over a week ago and have debated about whether I wanted to blog about it or not. I think most of my reluctance is due to not wanting to feed more commentary into an already overflowing pot. First off, I really like the film. The New York Times questions whether the documentary is authentic or if it is another “hoax” by Banksy. The write up says the documentary is an attempt by Banksy to become legit, to be taken seriously.

Does it matter whether it is a hoax or not? Banksy started his career pulling brilliant pranks at top museums. He had a sold out show in Los Angeles that drew a crowd not seen before in the LA art scene. His work is sold at auction and collected by major contemporary art collectors. Do you really believe that he is still looking for approval from the establishment? I believe Banksy’s place in the art world has long been secure and established. The film is not an attempt pleading with the powers that be to accept him. If anything, the documentary is about the irony of the art world at large.

What is more interesting is the questions that confronts Banksy, Shepard Fairey and other graffiti artists. Graffiti art is ephemeral, it is counter-culture. You love it because it is not meant to last forever. It takes you by surprise, brightens your day and makes you aware of the here and now for a brief moment before you hurry off to the next appointment. It is a brilliant way to poke your finger in the eyes of the establishment and say something about the status quo. “Exit through the Gift Shop” documents some of the career defining moments for Banksy and Fairey but also gives us a snap shot of where they are now, adored and loved by the establishment. What do you do with that? How does one shift their mindset? What does one do with the counter-culture persona that they have embodied for so long when now they are the star at a packed opening reception at Deitch Projects?

The sudden success of Thierry Guetta, the French man who compulsively followed Banksy, Fairey, Swoon and other street artists for years documenting their work is another interesting twist in the plot. Banksy tells Guetta, to go back to LA, make some art, have a show, invite a few people. Guetta took Banksy’s advice as some kind of sacred command, went all out and put on a massive art show of his work at the empty CBS building in LA. What is hilarious about Guetta’s success is that he hires people to MAKE the art for him. The entire content of the show is produced by helper monkeys that Guetta hires and none of it by his own hand. Historically, successful artists all have had assistants to help them in the studio, from making stretchers, prepping canvass, mixing paint to fetching smokes and booze. Even with the abundance of assistance, we hold the notion that the artist at some point in time will dip the brush in the paint, pick up a drill, or put their finger on the shutter. They will come up with the idea for the art and at some juncture leave their finger prints on the work itself. Aside from having an army of helper monkey to create the art, none of the ideas behind Guetta’s work are original, they are all spinning off of other street artist’s work. The thoughts are diluted and mass produced,  much like the art itself. Is imitation really the best form of flattery? Shepard and Banksy seems slightly uncomfortable with the over night sensation that they have unwittingly help to create. 

When discussing the “art factory” phenomena, Warhol, Koons, Murakami are a few of the artists who comes to mind immediately. Irrespective to whether the artist should be making the actual art himself or not, at least the thought behind Warhol, Koons and Murakami’s art are original. Before they were famous and loved by the world, they had to actually CREATE their own work. Guetta skipped the struggling phase, the actually creating work phase and went straight into a million dollar in sales art factory phase. In the end though, perhaps the joke is on us. The public ate up Guetta’s art with such a ferocity that it makes you wonder if the public has any sense of taste what so ever or is hype all it needs before a feeding frenzy starts? 

Counter culture continuously becomes popular culture. If you give the authority the middle finger for long enough, it will fold you in a warm tight hug and confess its undying love to you. How does that change the nature and aesthetic of the artists’ work? How does that effect the artist? Is there still value in ACTUALLY MAKING the art itself or have we reached such a synthetic stage of our evolution that time in the studio is primitive and no longer necessary? 

* image curtsy of