Art belongs out in public. Not in some white-walled gallery, policed by a shadowy artworld, but out where people walk, shop, work and interact – on buildings, street corners, billboards, whether the people who supposedly own these “public” spaces like it or not. This defiant assertion is the implicit message of contemporary “street art,” a vibrant, diverse movement that raises important questions about what makes art legitimate. Is it ‘institutional’ recognition that makes it genuine art? The signature or stylistic flourishes of a master artist? Or is the artworld itself a commodified, ideologically suspect construction – smoke and mirrors that distract us from art’s ‘illegitimate,’ democratizing potential to disturb and question culture at “street level”?
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) is ostensibly about an eccentric Frenchman with a handlebar moustache named Thierry Guetta, who rises from being the owner of a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles to an art world superstar. I say ostensibly because it is quite difficult to tell to what extent the whole unlikely story of Thierry Guetta is an elaborate hoax conceived by the shadowy British artist known as Banksy. You have probably run across Banksy’s subversive, pop-culture-skewing street art even if you didn’t know it at the time. His ‘signature’ black-stencilled graffiti adorns walls around the world and has found its way into pop consciousness. From Christ crucified with his hands full of shopping bags, to Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald holding hands amidst the horrors of Vietnam, Banksy’s work is meant to provoke and unsettle. One of his most popular images shows a bandannaed protester in the iconic pose of throwing a Molotov cocktail… but with the dangerous explosive cheekily replaced with a bunch of flowers. Though such “art as activism” can lead to its own propaganda, Banksy’s work is notable for its self-reflexive sarcasm, a quality that seems to elude most artists (including Christians) eager to promulgate a “message.” However, it is his mysterious anonymity that is probably the most intriguing facet of his work. Who is Banksy?
At the outset of the film, Thierry Guetta emerges as an obsessive documentarian of the street art movement, filming tape after tape of artists like Shepard Fairey and Space Invader as they spray-paint and poster their way across the urban landscape of Los Angeles. Eventually he crosses paths with Banksy and begins to follow him under the pretense of making a documentary film. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Thierry is a completely inept filmmaker, so in a strange reversal, Banksy takes the reins and starts making a film about Thierry. And then, in an even stranger inversion, Thierry decides despite his near-total lack of artistic skill to become a street artist himself, adopting the moniker “Mr. Brain Wash” and mounting an ambitious, over-the-top exhibition of his own (derivative, mass-produced) art. Somehow Thierry becomes the celebrated artist, and Banksy (an anonymous figure who only appears in shadows, his voice disguised) is left shaking his head at how a non-artist (and failed filmmaker) has made himself into an art-world brand.
There are lots of interesting questions that this film poses: What is art? Can politically subversive art be turned into a commodity – put on a mug, calendar or T-shirt and sold in an art gallery gift shop – without compromising its message? Can anyone consider themselves a great artist if they just adopt the latest art fad without defining their own unique style? Are Banksy and Mr. Brain Wash two sides of the same coin? And how does this strange and wonderful “documentary” fit into all of this? [It is a thorny artworld puzzle just as troubling as the one in My Kid Could Paint That (2007).]
If we are interested in engaging culture with a transformative message, maybe getting out our aerosol cans and taking to the streets is not such a bad idea. But here’s the rub: new wine needs new wineskins. There is no need for a “Christian street art” that simply recycles the tropes and styles of Banksy and Shepard Fairey – as if having something to say (content) means we can mindlessly ape whatever happens to be cool and relevant at the time (form). A prophetic, “apocalyptic” street art that subverts ideological manipulation and unveils the kingdom of God calls for its own system of symbols – lest we too turn our art into a gift-shop commodity.
What do you think that would look like?
Brett David Potter is working on a PhD in theology, art and culture at the Toronto School of Theology and has an MCS in Christianity and the Arts from Regent College in Vancouver. Before that he studied film and video at York University. His current research project is an attempt to navigate the space between theological aesthetics and contemporary art, with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Jean-Luc Marion as guides. Brett lives with his wife and daughter in Toronto, where alongside his academic interests he makes video art, writes music and blogs about art, film and faith (on his blog ‘unfolding forms‘.)
Image Credit: IMDb
Fair Use Justification: The image is being used for comment on the film.