Friday, March 25, 2011

The Death of Street Art?

I was interested to see the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop because I had heard it was about street art. It wasn't. And it was. I'll explain in a moment.

Meantime, though, let me say that I do happen to love art that just appears for no apparent reason to trigger the imagination or outrage of unsuspecting passers-by, and disappears almost as quickly as it arrived. It's a great way to bypass the relentless--and to my mind poisonous---commercialism that defines much of the current art scene. It started to happen long before it became fashionable: I think of my old friend Maura Sheehan who, back in the 1970s already, was putting together teams who would go out furtively over the weekend and, say, paint an entire parking lot pink--from the chain link fence to the pavement and every little piece of detritus abandoned there. Imagine driving up to your favorite parking spot on a Monday morning and finding it all pink... And then there were the earlier graffiti artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat prominent amongst them. And Robbie Conal, whose biting, guerilla warfare political posters have been skewering the corrupt and and the incompetent for years. (Actually, if you want to go back to the origins, you need to go back to ancient Greece and Rome. And don't forget Kilroy, of World War II fame. There's a fascinating history of graffiti available on Wikipedia. But I digress.)

Anyway, as I'm sure you know, Banksy is perhaps the most famous of the latest crop of "street artists," as they have come to be known in the past decade or so--along with the likes of Shepard Fairey, whose Obama poster surely made a big contribution in shifting the political winds in favor of the President. I was expecting "Exit Through the Gift Shop" to be a celebration of the wonderfully imaginative work of many of these artists who have been busy thumbing their noses at our society at large and the art world and its values in particular. As it turned out, the film spent relatively little time documenting their work, concentrating instead the meteoric rise of the obsessive French-born Thierry Guetta (aka Mister Brainwash) from Los Angeles trendy shop keeper to video freak and accidental documentarian to, finally, a self-annointed, self-proclaimed street artist.

In a real sense, Banksy's film is a requiem for the recent phenomenon of street art, because it documents its path from marginally criminal--and socially disrespectful--behavior to a boom of collector frenzy and highly profitable commercialism. Guetta himself, initially no more than an rather irritating nerd with a video camera, caught on to the street art phenomenon and started covering the work of some of the artists with countless hours of tape. He was soon in hot pursuit of the ultimate prize, the notoriously elusive Banksy himself, and finally managed to engage his friendship. Following the triumphal exhibition with which Banksy managed to conquer the Los Angeles social and cultural scene, Guetta set about the challenge of becoming a street artist himself. And, though his work could honestly be described as neither "street" nor "art," he brought off a commercial coup which may have delivered a death blow to the spirit behind the movement. With even this mode of expression now debased into mainstream-commerical and with gullible buyers lining up to lay their hands on the stuff, it's hard to imagine how it can continue to be anything but tame.

Even though it was not what I had imagined, though, the film is well worth seeing. Narrated by a hooded, anonymous character in an electronically-altered voice--presumably Banksy--I see it as a cautionary tale about the perils of the human ego when it knows no bounds.

1 comment:

CHI SPHERE said...

I saw this film with my boys and feel very like you do regarding the commercialism that has permeated the art of the street. Two exhibitions at The Robert Berman Gallery, "Revolutions" & "Street and Low" deliver this commercial opportunism to LA.

I have fond memories of Maura Sheehan's pink triangle parking lot that appeared in I think about 1982 very near The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA on the east side of Alameda one spring morning as well as Robbie Conal's work pasted on drive by walls in the early 80's.

I much prefer the writers or graffiti artists who's palimpsest like surfaces are rich with point and counter point imagery, form, content, color and political commentary. Street art will never die because the need to critique culture outside of the conventions of regulation and approved norms of exposure is driven by passion, anger, social unrest, oppression and the need to point out the inequalities of mass culture.

I have contributed my share of street works and still
do at he ripe age of 67. Here's looking back at you in your car wherever you drive or walk. Pay attention
and you will see pairs of shoes hurled up on phone lines in groups and white dots or squares covering text advertising which create new words or contextual alterations in the public domaine.

Never say die!