Street art enthusiasts seem to have a thing for destructive fanaticism, but I’m not sure they realize how destructive it can be. They exuberantly consume the latest street artworks like hungry piranhas, hyping the artist and his products until there’s nothing left but an embarrassing skeleton. They get inexplicably ramped up about artists who have produced one provocative wheatpaste or had a single clever idea. The artist flies through the Internet — he gets a ton of Flickr views, shows up on Wooster Collective, and floods Facebook newsfeeds. A little while later he has his first solo show at some obscure gallery. The hype suffices to sell the majority of works: 15 minutes of fame for the artist and $15,000 dollars for the gallery. The artist thinks he’s getting something out of it: he delights in false praise, deluded by the hype. After the climax of the show the hype can go nowhere but down. This artist has been milked. People look around and realize that the art really isn’t very good after all, that what he was doing on the street was interesting, sort of, but that the artist really has little talent. How could he? The bees of hype carried him along making him do more and more of that one barely good thing he did to get the buzz going. And the next year when those same hoards are sniffing a different pollen no one really cares about last year’s harvest. Those flowers are wilted and gone.
The hype machine is a graffiti removal task force of unprecedented power. It captures immature artists from the streets, plucks their soft feathers, sells their tender meat, and discards them. The artists, if they have a modicum of self-scrutiny, realize that they are not very good and leave disillusioned by street art, the art world, and, at worst, art itself. Before long we stop seeing new works pop up in the street. No wonder street art in NYC seems dead.
The hype machine is disillusioning for artists and art lovers alike. It makes us expect more from an artist than it is reasonable to expect, and it embarrasses us by making us hero-worship untalented hacks. There is a growing awareness that it is seriously harming street art, and the time is right to expose it. Recently some of the most famous street artists set out to do just that, in a film that takes the form of a grand apology for their role in the most egregious act of hype-induced deception to date. Exit Through the Gift Shop — “a Banksy film” — is an exposé of a con artist, an apology by the accomplices, and a promise to never do it again. The question is whether they can actually keep that promise.
The film documents the rise of Thierry Guetta, or “Mr. Brainwash,” into the heights of art world success, but it is not a mere documentary. The film relentlessly mocks Guetta, who is portrayed (perhaps veraciously) as the most pathetic, untalented, dumb, borderline psychotic fool in the entire street art world. His art is almost unbelievably bad. It is resolutely unoriginal, thoughtless, empty, and cliché. Mr. Brainwash is the Thomas Kinkade of Pop Art. Whenever Guetta talks about his art we are dumbfounded by his banality, his lack of insight or vision, his plain idiocy. He tells us that his name is “Mr. Brainwash” because art, according to Guetta, is all about brainwashing (an idea advanced, in slightly different form, by Plato over 2,000 years ago and thoroughly debunked by Aristotle shortly thereafter). Yet, by the end of the film Mr. Brainwash has a massively successful solo show entitled, romantically, “Life is Beautiful.” The show is a gaudy mess of absurdity, a kind of art world Disneyland selling junk to naive people with money who want to be cool. He seems to have no idea what he is doing or why he is doing it. He only seems to know that he is cashing in and getting lots of attention.
Mr. Brainwash got there with lots of help from street art’s biggest names. He is the lovechild of Banksy and Shepard Fairey. Guetta started out as an obsessive videographer who was introduced to Shepard Fairey by his cousin, the famous street artist Invader. After relentlessly filming Fairey for a while, Guetta meets Banksy and begins filming him all the time. Banksy adopts Guetta as a trusted accomplice, thinking that Guetta is making a film about street art. In fact, he is filming everything — hundreds, if not thousands of tapes full — for no reason at all. (There is a scene where we see all of these tapes; this is when we fully realize that Guetta is probably mentally ill.) Encouraged by Banksy, Guetta starts making his own street art and when he decides to put on “Life is Beautiful” he has the support of both Fairey and Banksy. Their endorsements, and a little help from some Banksy PR people, get half of Los Angeles to flock to Mr. Brainwash’s show, which sells over a million dollars in one week. Banksy and Fairey are astonished by the scale of the show, by its blatantly awful art, and by the LA cool crowd’s total inability to see past the hype (well, maybe that’s not so shocking). They apologize for creating the monster and promise to no longer contribute to the hype machine.
Ironically though, the film just heats the hype-induced hot air. This holds whether or not Mr. Brainwash is a massive Banksy prank designed to expose and mock the public’s obsession with brand names and their blind consumption of whatever trash is dumped on their laps. The film has already shaken the hive of hordes of street art fanatics, even sparking controversy when Marc Schiller of Wooster Collective demonstrated a level of devotion and fanaticism unheard of in the contemporary art world. How could he so obsessively promote the film without being paid to do so? Now the art world knows that street art lovers are on a whole ’nother level. Street art is the second coming of Art and Banksy is their prophet. They just don’t realize that they are hyping (they might say “promoting”) a film that plainly demonstrates the danger and stupidity of hype. They deride people who do not understand their “passion” while forgetting about Lennie’s crushing love for puppies. There is a difference between being passionate and caring about something. Such insistent hype is the very thing the film debunks and promises to disavow.
This is exactly why we cannot take the film’s promise seriously. It revs very hype machine the film tries to unplug. Not only is Banksy doing it again. He is doing it with the very film that promises he won’t — and he’s doing it to himself. By painting an ugly picture of Guetta, Banksy paints a beautiful one of himself. Mr. Brainwash is all wrong, all hype; Banksy and Fairey are all right, all real. So real that you must go see the movie man! MBW is such a punk ass! Banksy is so COOL!
But is he? Shouldn’t he have foreseen this? His film could have ended with some serious self-reflection, by really disavowing the hype and showing how it not only dupes (semi-)innocents into buying awful art, but actually plays a direct role in ruining street art. He could have shown how Mr. Brainwash was abusing a well-oiled machine. He could have seriously explored the idea that perhaps he and Fairey (especially Fairey) aren’t all that different from Mr. Brainwash. He could have, and I think he should have. But he didn’t. If street art is going to thrive as an autonomous practice, someone needs to.
Homepage image: via WoosterCollective.com and by Jake Dobkin