L’art Pour L’art
Radiation Level: Dangerous
Listening To: Tornado by jónsi
Went to see the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop last night. This is the best movie I’ve seen since The Hangover. Funny, dramatic, clever, artistic, ironic and thought provoking.
I know very little about Street Art, but as I was watching the film, I was squirming with inspiration. People like Shepard Fairey and Banksy, whose work I was somewhat familiar with, are Guerilla-style graffiti artists who enter the shadows of night to birth their art, never knowing how long the work will live before getting “cleaned up” or painted over by the owner of the wall they hijacked. There is something electric about this temporary-ness that gets my blood pumping. The art is not about the future, because, like in life, the future is unknown. Whereas traditional art seems to be constructed with a plan for its future existence. Otherwise, how else could you sell it? No reasonable person is going to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a piece of art that may not exist in a couple days. This is also the magic of live theater. The performance exists in this one and only moment, like life, and though it may be performed again, it will never be exactly the same. The play, the actors, the audience will be uniquely different each time.
The temporal nature of street art is chaste in the sense that it adheres to the controversial “l’art pour l’art” principle, (the philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function).
At least until Street Art’s inevitable commercialization and massive sell-off. T-shirts. Prints. A broken BT phone booth. Now a movie. They all make the wildly talented Banksy rich. Of course art collectors and appreciators clamor to own a piece of this fleeting, in the moment art. But to own it, to watch the movie, changes the nature of Street Art.
This is beautifully personified in the film by Thierry Guetta. A seemingly harmless, pure-hearted man with OCD who just wants to tag-along with taggers and record videos. Banksy and Fairey both decided the idea of documenting their temporal work was a good idea. This was where everything went very wrong. Both artists gave in to the irrational “I can control the future and live forever by saving this on video tape” concept. They were seduced by the false prophet called immortality.
Making a film was NOT the intention of Tierry Guetta, however. He had never even viewed any of the videotapes he made, let alone edited them or constructed a narrative story out of any footage. For Guetta, it was about the high of participating in the danger-filled moments, and holding a video camera was his entree into that exciting world. “Danger,” says Guetta, “make me feel good.”
Entering this perfect storm, Fairey and Banksy accidentally (?) create an Art Frankenstein out of Guetta called “Mr. Brainwash” who creates art that smells like rotting flesh. This makes Guetta also rich, leaving Banksy and Fairey feeling like the shameful parents of a forsaken freak of nature. They gave birth to an abomination. All because they crossed the spray-painted line of their own original poetic principle: art for art’s sake.
Is this wrong or immoral? I don’t think so. I think it’s fascinating and makes for an entertaining movie that questions the relationship between commercialism and art, which is so adroitly captured in the film’s title, “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” A question Bansky himself ponders in the film but only scratches his head. The answers are too painful. I’m sure there are many street artists who feel Banksy has sold out, but I see it as only the inevitable evolution of an art form. Hip Hop had its journey. Yoga was corrupted. Even Jesus. In the end, it all gets packaged and sold because of our fear of death. That said, I’m looking to purchase a screen print of Banksy’s Trolley Hunters. Know where I can get one?