Saturday, May 29, 2010

Exit through the Banksy Effect

People are often surprised to discover that I despise Shepard Fairey but adore Banksy (one of his images, at left). But . . . aren't they both graffiti artists? these types usually sputter. Yes, but one's talented, the other isn't. And that makes all the difference. At least to me.

Other people feel differently. Indeed, what's most frustrating about the Fairey cabal is how they imagine the case against street art (and it's a genuine case) somehow transforms their vacuous "rebel" into a real artist. Only sorry - spray painting other people's imagery on still other people's property does nothing of the sort; it can only buy you cachet in the cool, foolish crowd that follows art but doesn't understand it.

Meanwhile it's true that you can legitimately oppose Banksy for vandalism and trespass - but at the same time, you have to admit the work itself is bitterly, humanely brilliant, and instantly memorable, and has been for nearly a decade. In fact Banksy seems to be the only street artist who reliably comprehends the nature of street art. Shepard Fairey just plasters his dopey "Obey" logo all over everything - but Banksy's work is usually politically up-to-the-minute, and also quite site-specific; it looks like it belongs where he has put it. If he "vandalizes" the street, then he activates it, too: it's no surprise that his graffiti, so clever and so tailored to its site, often becomes a local touchstone. And he's just so damned funny - his sense of satire qualifies him as a kind of Daumier of the street, in fact, and he's so far ahead of the pack intellectually that sometimes it seems the pretensions of the whole movement are riding on his coattails (a phenomenon which already has its own name, "the Banksy effect").

Welcome to the rat race: early Banksy.

The artist himself seems aware of this irony, and his new movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop (now at the Kendall Square Cinema), operates as an acidly hilarious satire of his own milieu - or rather the arty milieu that has lined up to exploit his milieu. Got that straight? I know it's hard to, particularly when you're watching Exit, which is, amusingly enough, a documentary not about Banksy but about the celebrity of someone who for years hounded the artist because of his celebrity. (Even though Banksy insists on a strict code of anonymity from all his associates.)

Yes, the movie's central concern is (wait for it) the paradox of anonymous celebrity. The fame of the unknown. Lady Gaga gone underground - that's Banksy. And that contradiction - and its ramifications - may be what makes his movie one of the funniest of the year.

Which isn't to say that the artist isn't (almost) as rich as Lady Gaga. He is; Banksies have sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's hard to begrudge him the cash, however, when his workshop keeps churning out such high-quality, politically edgy stuff - and when the mechanics of maintaining its secrecy, as the projects grow ever higher in profile (see below), have by now reached astronomical levels of complication.

So it's no surprise the issue of his anonymity/celebrity has figured more and more prominently in Banksy's work. He has already issued parodies of Paris Hilton's notorious recording efforts with titles like "Why am I Famous?" and "What Am I For?" and even ridiculed the collectors who have paid so much for his own pieces. At a deeper level, these japes hint at a more serious question that has emerged about his career: can you be a celebrity and still be genuinely political, authentically "street"? In fact, Banksy's greatest challenge may be shielding his work from his own increasing success - and the resulting efforts to "out" him. For how could he carry off his ongoing critique of power if his identity became known? His secrecy is his identity. If we find out who he is, his career (at least as we know it) will be over. And the rearview mirror is full of pop artists like Warhol and Basquiat whose edge was compromised, or ruined, by their celebrity. To his immense credit, Banksy doesn't want to follow in their footsteps.

Much better than "Obey:" Banksy on the West Bank.

Although plenty of other people would like to follow in his. Which leads us to Exit Through the Gift Shop, and its putative subject, Thierry Guetta (a.k.a. "Mister Brainwash"), a would-be documentarian who seems to have spent years tracking the likes of Shepard Fairey and the even-lesser street talent "Invader." Guetta seems like a sweet, shaggy obsessive-compulsive in the thrall of street art, to the point of following artists onto precarious ledges and rooftops (I'll say this much for Shepard Fairey, he's got guts). His finest moment probably comes when he's nabbed by security while documenting a particularly daring "installation" by Banksy in Disneyland. Guetta may come off as a scruffy stoner, but he doesn't crack under pressure; and his video of the park's reaction feels quite a bit more subversive than the artwork itself.

But like many an obsessive-compulsive, Guetta doesn't have what it takes to pull together his hours (and hours) of footage into a completed work; when he tries, the results scan like a bad acid trip. So Banksy "suggests" that Guetta try his hand at actual street art instead - while Banksy plays documentarian.

What happens next may well prove a source of debate for years to come. To hear Guetta tell it, he quickly put together a giant show of art, staged in an abandoned L.A. studio building, and modeled loosely on Banksy's own "elephant in the room" show a few years before (below). Banksy gave the event his imprimatur, and their now-joint "documentary' morphed into an account of Guetta's struggles to mount an extravaganza that would prove hipper and more ambitious than his mentor's. 

Given Guetta's seeming jittery incompetence, the actual work of the installation fell to an army of assistants - who worked frenetically, and without direction, round the clock - even as L.A. hipsters lined up outside the building for a chance to ogle the goods. The surprise is that - as even the installers dazedly admitted - while the logistics of the show were a nightmare, the pieces themselves were actually professionally produced, and kind of fun; a Warhol soup can re-configured as a spray can was one typically witty gambit. The show became a sensation - it ran for weeks - and Guetta sold something like a million dollars' worth of art. Now established, he began planning a similar show for New York, and soon was signed by Madonna to do her "Celebration" album cover.

The famous "elephant in the room" from Banksy's "Barely Legal" exhibit in 2006.

But did Guetta himself really produce his own images and objets? It does strike one that much of the stuff seen in Exit was probably by Banksy's studio (although it had been drained of any sense of protest). The Michael-as-Marilyn paintings look a lot like Banksy's Kate-Moss-as-Marilyn parodies, for instance. And none of Guetta's "Mr. Brainwash" work has actually passed through the hands of a gallery (he organizes his shows himself), so his whole operation has never been vetted by outside eyes. Indeed, it's quite possible that some, and maybe all, the collectors snatching these items up were doing so on the hunch that they could actually turn out to be cast-off Banksies.

Which leads one into a fascinating hall-of-mirrors-style artistic debate. Who is zooming whom, to be honest, in the tale of Banksy and the aptly-named "Mr. Brainwash"? Or is anyone zooming anyone? Yes, I know, Ty Burr insists that Thierry Guetta is for real, because "this story’s too good, too weirdly rich, to be made up." Uh-huh. Add that to your next letter to Santa, Ty. The only real question is whether Madonna and the hipsters "know" at some level what they're participating in. It's obvious that Banksy takes Mr. Brainwash as an Art-Basel-style inflation/desecration of street art. That, of course, doesn't mean he didn't set the whole thing up. But has anyone really been duped (aside from Ty) by his machinations? Or is the Mr. Brainwash phenomenon a tongue-in-cheek mode of self-critique by the hipster herd, an art-zombie march to Banksy's tune-at-one-remove?

Of course Mr. Guetta may have been a kind of dupe, as he innocently ripped off his idol without ever guessing at Banksy's deeper intentions. Then again, maybe Guetta was in on the scam, and appreciated it as a kind of giant conceptual graffito sprayed across the art world. Perhaps some members of the movie's audience have been fooled - but then again, Exit wouldn't be much of a movie if Guetta's show had failed, would it. The point is, I think, that it doesn't really matter either way. However you slice it, Banksy has made his horrified statement about his own success via this factotum - and Exit Through the Gift Shop probably stands as the largest work of conceptual art ever realized. Which does give me some pause; I mean, I know Banksy is brilliant - but is he that brilliant? Dr.-No brilliant, hollowed-out-volcano brilliant? Indeed, the movie seems to me to hint at some frightening new arena of artistic endeavor - the "flash mob" gone meta, in which actual human society becomes an arena for staged, "faux-real" events. 

On the upside, however, there is the following to ponder: Does this mean Banksy could be clever enough to engineer sending Shepard Fairey to prison? 

And keeping him there?