In 2011, the art world will make a rare appearance at the Academy Awards, and not in the guise of the stereotypically brooding lothario painter or tiny-dog-clutching patrician art collector. This year’s nominees for best feature documentary include Waste Land, a film about the artist Vik Muniz’s work with scavengers at a Brazilian landfill, and the acclaimed Exit Through the Gift Shop, produced, directed and starring the enigmatic street artist, Banksy, who has somehow unpacked an entire course load’s discussion about the efficacy of appropriation and interventionist art strategies in only 87 minutes.
Banksy is well-known for his quippy, Pop-derived street art: stenciled figures hanging perilously from window sills; children clutching bouquets of helium balloons; bobbies making out; a Queen’s Guard taking a leak. He has also received attention for hanging his own paintings on the walls of the Louvre and the Met, and for making drawings on the West Bank separation barrier. Despite this impressive resume, he may be best known for not being known at all: for living in anonymity, working in secrecy, and trafficking in subterfuge.
These circumstances make Exit Through the Giftshop a minefield for anyone trying to sort out its facts and analyze them. If we take its content at face value, the film traces the improbable ascendancy on the street art scene of a poser named Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash. Guetta is an obsessive videographer and the cousin of a street artist known as Space Invader (his tag is a pixelated spaceship from the familiar video game). On a visit to France, Invader introduces his cousin to the mysterious demimonde of the street art scene, and Guetta is immediately smitten. Yada yada, he ends up as a sort of official documentarian of the street art culture, eventually amassing prodigious amounts of footage of Invader, Shepard Fairey, Swoon, Banksy, and others. Guetta’s ultimate plan to create a documentary is undone by his own ineptitude and self-indulgence. With his dreams dashed, he decides to bet the ranch (literally, he mortgages his ranch house) on becoming the next big street artist, calling himself Mr. Brainwash. He hits the Los Angeles streets with posters bearing his likeness, buckets of wheat paste, and an inexhaustible ambition. It’s a case of truth being stranger than fiction, which begs one to question whether Brainwash and his boondoggle are just another “Banksy” in disguise. The climax and punch line of the film comes in the form of a self-organized solo show at a Los Angeles warehouse filled to the rafters with Pop Art souvenirs that Brainwash shamelessly hocks, desperately trying to capitalize on his 15 minutes.
We are led to believe the show is a rousing success; there are celebrities, media reps, and lines of looky-loo collectors clamoring for a piece of Mr. Brainwash’s thing. It’s a cautionary tale about the seductiveness of cynical art. And indeed, if the footage is reliable, Mr. Brainwash’s work is truly uninspired, a cynical recombination of Marilyn Monroes, Campbell’s Soup logos, Mona Lisas, Elvises, and rats—like a game of Pop Art Mad Libs. But the only reason we can be certain that the filmmakers intended us to dismiss Brainwash’s art is because we are privy to his moronic testimony. If you plug your ears and fast-forward through Guetta’s comments, the work looks as (il)legitimate as any of the stuff that passes for real on West 22nd Street.
In the realm connecting anti-establishment subversion with Pop appropriation, how much meaning, one wonders, remains to be wrung out? In our visually overwhelmed landscape and against a recent history of appropriated art and depersonalized imagery, the evidence of Exit points to street art as becoming an increasingly fangless idiom. How is Brainwash’s giant Elvis wielding a toy Kalashnikov any more or less potent than a stenciled rat, or, for that matter, another Andre the Giant demanding us to “OBEY?” Aren’t they all just so much high-contrast noise? The kneejerk response to this question won’t be about efficacy, it will be about context: Mr. Brainwash is a derivative hack who steals his imagery and ideas from more original artists like Banksy. But, in terms of recycled, depersonalized imagery, after Duchamp and Warhol, who’s keeping score anymore? And, if the discussion is about art and not drug patents, we should be more concerned with locating emotion or effecting change than holding court about who gets our collective blessing to spray paint bridges.
*A quick caveat: to the degree that interventionist street art can be expressive and/or subversive, Banksy appears to be a genius limited only by his tactics and media. Banksy’s work has always seemed a bit more complex than other stencilers and sprayers, but the graphics, anonymity, and jokiness get in the way. Hearing him in Exit, even through a voice filter, he comes across as so centered and reasonable that one can’t help but give his art the benefit of the doubt. If Mr. Brainwash’s mouth is what poisons his already inert work, Banksy’s character enriches his, leaving one to wish he would give up the shtick and put more of himself into his work. Exit Through the Gift Shop moves a little in that direction, perhaps signaling that he might be ready to let his inner William Blake run free.
Street artists like Banksy, Invader, and Neckface are prefigured by Situationists like René Viénet and Guy Debord who saw interventionism as a purely political act meant to confront and subvert the stultifying, commercialized metropolis. This was in the late 1960s in France, when the stakes were high and the avant-garde in Europe was healthy. Since then, those strategies have become an open source playbook for anyone, from advertisers to narcissistic urchins to legitimate artists, to use as a guide for colonizing one’s consciousness. And by the looks of the 2011 cityscape, they all have.
From the onramp to the Williamsburg Bridge, N-E-C-K-F-A-C-E can be read clearly on one of its supports. To the right, the airbrushed-smooth face of Owen Wilson smiles from a Clear Channel billboard. Both are white noise, neither subversive nor seductive. And the horizon bears thousands more advertisements and spray painted tags, amounting to a punch/counterpunch, cold war-type stalemate that will be broken only by art that is warmer than what it is trying to destabilize. This is the irony we face in 2011: that a win for either Waste Land or Exit at a self-aggrandizing, hyper-commercialized awards show will represent a greater victory for the challengers of the society of spectacle than all the drowsy-eyed cartoon characters and spray painted tags adorning the world’s bridges and overpasses.