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(via seanbuckley.ca)

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.

(via flickr.com/robonline)

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.

A mass phenomenon

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

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Nick Riggle

Nick Riggle lives in Brooklyn and is pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at New York University, where he is writing a dissertation on issues in aesthetics. In addition to contributing to Hyperallergic, Nick...

12 replies on “Hype to Death, Death to Hype: Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop””

  1. This is by far, the best critique of the movie I’ve seen so far. The attacks on Thierry seem unfair when we are comparing to Shepard Fairey of all people. How is he truly different? While MBW’s works are largely derivative and devoid of context and meaning, that doesn’t mean at all that the entirety of his work is bad. We have to ask the question of how much motivation is a part of this street art world. Must your motives be pure to participate? If so, while Banksy and Fairey have ‘outed’ the motivation of MBW, why do they consider themselves above that? And they played a role that MBW clearly wanted to emulate – if he was emulating the best he could, maybe he knows more about Fairey and Banksy than we do.

    1. I like your point about emulation. The most creative people are the ones that hide their sources the best. MBW, if he’s “real” (and I don’t believe he is), may look derivative compared to Fairey and Banksy, but keep in mind that Fairey has had his fair share of run ins with plagiary accusations before. It’s hard to believe that they would consider themselves above it.

  2. Thanks for writing this.

    A majority of the art in the street art world is made up of reproductions (of reproductions). Its almost as if they are becoming one with the advertisements they are fighting against. The argument for “taking back the public’s space” and putting up beautiful works of art in public just for the sake of its beauty cant seem to be upheld at the moment. Its sad.

    There is a lot that’s missing in this scene- talent, technique and the results of a real search through making is whats missing.

    Street art has become such a manic way to get your work out there.

  3. I think this is a bit off the mark. My interpretation of the film was that Banksy (and Fairey) conciously created Mr. Brainwash as a joke. Your critique regarding the street art hype machine is right on, but I get the feeling that Banksy is not unaware of it, and in fact is actively exploiting the mindless hype in the form of a mean-spirited joke on all of Mr. Brainwash’s fans (as well as his own fans).

    1. I think you’re missing the point Michael. Of course Banksy is criticizing the influence of hype. In fact he is critiquing an instance of it. The point is that in doing so he fails to look at the larger picture in any detail. As a result, he inadvertently supports the very thing he is criticising. (Also, I’m not sure the view that Fairey and Banksy created MBW is supported by the events of the film; my points stand either way though.)

      1. I agree with the overall point you make, and Its true that nothing in the film’s plot definitively supports the idea that Banksy created Mr. Brainwash, but I can’t help but feel the entire narrative & Mr. Brainwash character are just one big Banksy prank. Of course I’m only speculating, but if it is a prank it makes sense in the context of his other sensationalist event with the painted elephant. I think the thing with Banksy is it’s impossible to tell when or if he’s being sincere.

        1. Its almost as if it doesn’t matter if we know the true intention of Banksy and Shep- It almost may not matter if we know that MBW is a creation of thiers or not, and whether MBW himself is in on it or not- because the point is still coming through- and that is that we are being shown that the hype machine is not a barometer of talent or quality or authenticity- and we are constantly being swept up by it and follow its lead giving way to a mob mentality sort of effect. Its dangerous to the people who value real art, and the people who make it. The people who love MBW’s work are the ones who are not seeing beyond it, past the reproduced images of Kate Moss and Madonna that are splattered with house paint as if to convince you that real painting was involved- and it wasn’t. Here is MBW, telling you he is an artist, showing you these large non paintings and selling them for large sums of money at a gallery in Chelsea, and we take his word for it without questioning.

  4. I think the overwhelming majority of people disagree with you about Nick’s review but everybody is entitled to their own opinion.

    The anti-intellectualism in your comment though is a little upsetting. Maybe you were onced punked by a philosopher?

  5. Your critique of this review is off-base. I thought the author brought up some interesting points, and I didn’t find it pseudo-intellectual at all, and what the point of that criticism is. Are you suggesting he’s thinking too hard about it? I’m not sure how he could’ve been “punked” by the film, as you suggest.

    I don’t really see how it matters how much personal knowledge of the background of this story in the context of a review… if you watch a movie, you’re free to have thoughts about it and share them. I plan to blog about having seen this movie as well, because it’s interesting to me to discuss in the public sphere, but I certainly don’t think that I’m unqualified to do so because I haven’t extensively investigated the background of the Mr. Brainwash/Thierry Gutta connection.

    It’s not a news site, it’s a blog. Do you have something original to say about your take on the movie? I’d want to hear your thoughts about that, not on the style in which this review was done.

  6. I am talking specifically about street art in New York City. You are commenting on Hyperallergic.com — the world’s best NYC blogazine. I think the “hype machine” has a negative effect on the street art here. And the Banksy film demonstrably empowered the hype machine. These aren’t very extravagant claims so I don’t know why you’re so worked up about it. I also don’t hate Guetta. I don’t know where you got that from. I was describing the way the film depicts him, and I find that depiction distasteful, even if it is somewhat accurate (though that’s not so relevant).

    Your quips about pseudo-intellectualism and philosopher stereotypes are certainly uncalled for. Don’t forget your manners. If you’re worried about my credentials, do some research of your own.

  7. thx for taking the time, jim. In your comebacks, you covered most of the points that upset me about this Nick Riggle rant. The rest of it is not worth anyone’s time to go further with. I want you and the other commenters to know that you are not the only one to find the “review” worthless. It seems these folks are so afraid of being punkd, they have no ability to enjoy art or film on it’s own terms, their fear has blocked other, more interesting, reactions.

  8. I saw this film recently, and I had a difficult time believing that Thierry Guetta is a real person. His name alone seems like a Simpsons joke, it looks like Theory Gutter written in a British accent. There was nothing that convinced me he was actually capable of mounting the huge show he put on. The part where he broke an ankle and got pushed along reminded me of William Carlos Williams, “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow.” Then there were incongrouous things, like the phone booth sculpture, the side adventure to disneyland to install a gitmo piece. All this led me to believe that it’s a critique of the bigger art machine, the world of museums, of the mechanics of acceptance into it. Vincent Van Gogh has lined more pockets than could have been conceived by him or anyone who knew him. It’s an example of true Camusian (if that is a word) absurdity. If you go to Banksy’s website there’s a page of paintings, and one is of a vase of dead sunflowers. Perhaps all of this has been discussed in art forums, I don’t know, but I find it very engaging to think about.

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