ONE MORE TIME—WHAT IS ART?
This year has brought two very good films on the art world, first, The Art of the Steal about the Barnes Collections (reviewed on this site) and, now, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The title refers to the museum blockbuster, which routes the audience through a maze of galleries so that they can “exit through the gift shop.” Here, one can buy tee shirts with art works printed on the front, famed posters of the art in the exhibition, mugs with the paintings wrapped around, note cards, post cards, sometimes backpacks and scarves, even jewelry—all copies of work of art. There is no end of the ways we can all own works of art, albeit in a reproduced form. Exit through the Gift Shop is a commentary on the art world, with the museum being guilty of money changing in the temple with the auction houses as accomplices. By inference, the film presents the street artists as being the last purists.
Outlaws, who are the ultimate “outsider” artists, literally working outside, invading the streets and posting art by night, uphold the lost honor of the myth of the artist. The artist, the true artist, according to Bruce Nauman, speaking in neon, “helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” He or she works for the common good, without hope of money or fame, willing to die for art. The real truth of the “true artist” is that s/he is a small business owner, producing a luxury commodity for a small group of consumers. The work is made on spec, as it were, and the reward is more fame and less fortune. Only a chosen few are ever noticed in this potlatch culture of inverted economics. The hero street artists of this film, Banksy and Shepard Fairey, are master strategists who have used the “rules” of the art world to gain recognition, gangster style. Primal insurrectionaries, they turned the art game into a guerilla war.
On the surface the documentary, narrated with careful solemnity by Rhys Ifans, is a record of one man’s obsession with the camera, directed towards stealthy street artists. But the mere employment of Ifans immediately tells the viewer that the presence of this supporting player, who chewed the scenery in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is a sign of sarcasm. A tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot, the movie is to be a witty one. At the heart of the absurdity, lurking at the fringes of the art world, is an unlikely knight-errant, or more precisely the squire of the art warriors, Thierry Guetta. Guetta is a French expat, living in Los Angeles with his long-suffering wife. He is the classic manic, filming compulsively with no end in sight, pointing his camera at the artists who come out at night.
Street art has been around for decades. One can be very erudite and point backwards in time to tympanums over cathedral doors or become historical and mention Diego Rivera or the WPA or the murals in Chicano neighborhoods, but a more precise analogy might be the New York street artists, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the lone survivor, Kenny Scharf. During the golden age of Graffiti Art, they spray painted the streets and subway corridors in the SoHo neighborhood where the chic art galleries were located. Well educated and ambitious, they were the sophisticated counterparts of lower order street artists, such as Fab Five Freddy, and those who spray-painted New York subway cars with images of Andy Warhol soup cans. To some their work was art and these artists were duly and quickly absorbed into the mainstream and appropriated by Mary Boone. To others, graffiti was simply graffiti and, like broken windows in a building, was symptomatic of crime to come. Graffiti was vandalism, pure and simple.
Whether or not one agrees with either position, the situation of the artists who work the streets rather than the galleries is that of someone operating outside the law. Although the streets are supposedly “public” and belong to us all—-after all we paid for them—-the public spaces are, in fact, private and patrolled. Property developers and private entrepreneurs own the buildings. The police control the streets. No unauthorized signage is allowed. The great street muralist, Kent Twitchell, has tales to tell of the ruination of his works of art at the hands of property owners. For the artist with a taste for adventure, the streets are a short cut to fame. Anyone can take the safe route, the gallery system, but there, in these white cubes, control, as stringent as that practiced by the police, awaits. The real freedom is not in the art schools or in the studios; it is out in the open, late at night, in the dark, on the fly.
Thierry Guetta began his career as a documentarian of street artists, who keep their identities secret and use street names. He was introduced to the underground world of art makers through his cousin, the French artist named, “Space Invader,” after a video game. “Space Invader” makes small designs from Rubik’s cubes and pastes them to the odd corners of Paris. Reminiscent of the environmental artist, Charles Simonds, in the 1970s, the street artists leave works of art, some large and some small, in odd, hard-to-reach spaces. Simonds, a recognized fine artist, would leave tiny earthen “cities” tucked away, like treasures, for the pedestrian to stumble across. All of these works were, of course, carefully documented with an eye to posterity. The street artists, who worked alone and who knew each other through a network of subterranean communication and silent respect, had no one to record their methods or their art until Thierry came along twenty years ago.
Thanks to the filmmaker, we have hundreds of hours of film, saving the secret practices and the ephemeral art from oblivion. But Thierry, being manic and undirected, was never able to get beyond compulsive acts to actually take all of his material and create a coherent shape. He got sidetracked, thanks to a causal suggestion by Banksy, and became an “artist,” of sorts. As “Mr. Brainwash,” he began plastering the walls of Los Angeles with a soon-to-be iconic image of himself with sunglasses and a camera. Guetta went beyond Photo-shopping a photograph and began “finding” available images, taken from art books and art magazines. The result was a manic compulsive obsessive hoarder’s dream of an exhibition in 2008, “Life is Beautiful.” In the former CBS Studios, MBW presented a cacophony of every known work of art, seized by Guetta and imprinted with his idea of what an “assisted Readymade” might be. If he even knew who Duchamp was, that is. The collectors, who, as their name might suggest, collect, began to acquire his “art,” because that is their nature: they are acquisitive. Guetta certainly provided plenty of opportunities for the acquirers to acquire. Remember, this is the last year before the Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods of Wall Street and every one was under the illusion they had money.
From a seller of used clothes to a documentary filmmaker to an art world phe-nom, the trajectory of Thierry Guetta seems to be the story told here, with Banksy and Fairey as supporting characters. But if that is all the film is about, the art lover will be in despair and the art skeptic will say, “I told you so.” The offended reaction of Banksy and Fairey in the end gives us a clue that the story of Thierry Guetta is about more than the lunacy of the art world and a person one reviewer described as the “village idiot.” The credit for this film belongs to Tom Fulford and Chris King, who are listed as editors and constructed all those incoherent hours of footage into a story of sorts. The movie is less about any particular artist, even Banksy, who is listed as the “director,” and more about the century old question: what is art? Guetta is the nightmare of aestheticians and art critics come true. He is an ultra appropriator, ripping off everything and everyone. How hard is it to be an artist if originality is no longer necessary? All you need to do is expose yourself…like a dirty old man in a raincoat.
For the art critic of the Sixties, the question, what is art? was a crisis. Arthur Danto faced this Waterloo at the Stable Gallery in 1964. The occasion was an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s installation art, all replicas of objects both low and commercial. It was said that Eleanor Ward hid in her office during the opening. As he stared at the replicas of stacked boxes of Kellogg’s cereals, Danto pondered the meaning and definition of art. What was to distinguish between the actual cardboard boxes of Kellogg’s products discarded and tossed behind the grocery store and Warhol’s screen-printed wooden boxes? Eventually incorporating obvious answers such as “the artist’s intent” and “the maker’s ideas,” Danto and another aesthetician, George Dickie, proposed the now famous “Institutional Theory of Art.” An object, or a candidate for “art,” becomes designated as “art,” once it has gone through a process of legitimation, moving though one Station of the Art World after the other. To the generation of the Abstract Expressionists, the artist was Christ; for the generation of Andy Warhol, the artist was a self-promoter. Warhol is the hero and role model for all street artists, not because he sold himself, but because he appropriated the look and feel of popular imagery and elevated it to “art” through sheer chutzpa.
By the time of Basquiat, Postmodernism had ended that mystic notion of “origin” and “genius,” and admitted that all art had to come from somewhere else. But acts of appropriation, gestures of quotation, performances of borrowing were the activities of very sophisticated, art school educated, theory permeated artists. They knew what they were doing and why. But that was decades ago. Thirty years after the debut of Jeff Koons, we are confronted with a truly naïve and unschooled artist, Thierry Guetta. Guetta sees without knowing why, takes without understanding how, imitates with the innocent eye of a child. He is a true “primitive,” a modern day Henri Rousseau, who knows just enough to be dangerous to others. All he knows is that “Life is Beautiful.” He has probably never heard of Roberto Benigni.
To the trained eye, Banksy is an educated artist who has shrewdly found his place in the streets of the big cities of the world, especially London. He learned from Basquiat. A true “outsider artist” does not make art “outside” the art world, in a place such as Des Moines or Birmingham, for example. You must place your art, in London or Paris or New York or Berlin, otherwise the art is like a tree in a forest empty of humans. It will fall, making no sound. Like Banksy, Shepard Fairey followed the strategy of maximum visibility. The graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design looks and acts like a nice frat boy and now lives and works in Los Angeles. A clean-cut family man, he became well known for his ubiquitous “Obey” posters of Andre the Giant and famous or infamous for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster. Although we know more about Fairey than Banksy, both artists hide in plain sight. And even better, we can’t see Banksy beneath the dark and shadowed hoodie. His visible invisibility makes him even more sought after.
Fairey and Bansky and the other street artists filmed by Guetta are genuine guerillas, striking by night and fleeing the scene. By morning light their work will be “discovered” and by the end of the day scrubbed out of existence, if possible. But like all guerillas, these artists have to be well financed. The documentary clearly demonstrates that even guerilla art is not cheap. There is much more to their art making process than that of Basquiat, who used a can of spray paint, and Keith Haring, who used white chalk on black paper. The new generation of street artists are more like Renaissance mural artists, complete with the workshops and assistants. We see preliminary sketches and cartoons, the enlarged Xerox prints, made in pieces. Some of the street art comes from stencils and we watch Banksy carefully cutting out an elaborate web of cardboard components. Other images are prints on a grand scale, applied with long brushes like huge rolls of wallpaper. All of this costs money. Someone is funding the enterprises of these highly successful artists and along the way smart art dealers made a smart investment.
But the question still remains, is Thierry Guetta an artist? From the perspective of the Institutional Theory of Art, he is. He has been through an apprenticeship and has earned his place. Guetta is the true result of the Institutional Theory and perhaps the reason why the Theory has been so controversial and debated for forty years. But that does not answer the real question: is he making art? The short answer is No. The long answer is No Way. Therry Guetta takes art; he does not make art. This statement is not intended to be a critique or a criticism. I am not condemning the man. I am simply describing how he works. Guetta is what Walter Benjamin would call a “cultural producer,” although today, in the time of post-Post-modernism, we might call him a “cultural re-producer.” But he is so far removed from any precise source, we cannot even dignify his practice as a type of simulacra. What lies beyond repetition? beyond replication? Thierry Guetta. Both Banksy and Fairey have come to look askance upon their former companion. By dismissing Guetta as a faux artist, they validate themselves as authentic artists. If this film demonstrates anything, it is that something we sense as “real” art actually exits. Whether or not we can explain art, we recognize it and we know when and what it is not. Like pornography.
That said there is nothing wrong with what Thierry Guetta is doing and he has a place in the art world. He grasped the basic psychology of what Banksy and Fairey were doing: they were muscling their way into the world of visual culture through the use of signature styles and trademark imagery. Their tactics were simple: visuality and repetition. Despite the apparently public nature of their work, which could be “owned” by all, their art was the ultimate “unobtainium” for a long time. They would give their art; the authorities would take it away. Part of the thrill was the sheer danger of the act. Guetta filmed street artists running from the law as if they were playing games of parquet. The sheer athleticism of the artists and their audacity made them a breed apart—outlaw gangsters always ready to break and run. The street artists were like cultural Robin Hoods: they robbed the landlords to give to the poor. The art could be seen but not for long. It could not be owned nor possessed. The stencils and the posters were placed just out of reach. The inaccessibility of the accessible created desire. That is the lesson that Thierry Guetta, who gave his art in excess, did not comprehend. He tried to create art through the Gift Shop. But it is Desire that creates art.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.