Thursday, May 6, 2010

Commodification of the "Criminal" Genius: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Banksy, the internationally celebrated Bristol U.K. street artist, made a name for himself dismissing crass commercialism and the shallowness of Western corporate culture. Symbolically using the rat for his nemeses, Banksy teased his targets as self interested vermin. Even peacefully sipping his coffee, a business man on the Chiltern Lines riding his way into London with the Guardian in hand is just a rodent in a nice suit.

The street art movement proved fertile ground for artists and social commentators to voice and display their visions. Rooted in the urban ghetto graffiti scene of the 70's and 80's, street artists seem to embrace that their creations share in the alienated, criminal ethos. Men who were powerless in society plastered tags along bus lines and subway lines to mark territory and immortalize themselves. The appeal of alienation and the seething anger spoke to suburban white boys who took on graffiti art, tagging in old styles and new. It is in this atmosphere that the street artist, a graffiti artist par extrodinaire, works. Using the same techniques as his predecessors, but with the creativity of the artist, graffiti goes beyond vandalism to social commentary, to beautification or uglification, to medium-as-message advertising. What all versions share is a sense of being immortalized, not so much by being everywhere (though that is part of it), but by doing something so monumental that it is spoken of ever after. But while the suburban white boy and the street artist can enjoy the vigilante nature of their vanadalism, the graffiti roots are in lawlessness or arbitrary law that allowed taggers to post indiscriminately, guided only by the law of the street.

Exit through the Giftshop is seen by many as yet another act of street art, in this case presented on the screens of the nation. No one cares all that much if that was its intent. The charming story of a French camcorderist who shoots thousands of hours of graffiti artists before jumping feet first into his own commercial success as one of them plays well without irony. He begins by selling low value T-shirts that become valued only as their price tag is set to ludicrous levels, so too with his art. Derivative pieces fill a warehouse and sell to a public starved to own art work they can relate to and value, without an ability to assess its quality.

Banksy is hardly the first artist to comment on the presumed emptiness of the wealthier classes and by no means the first man to use public space as his venue. He is not the first artist to be celebrated by those he seems to satirize and chastize, nor is he the first to be commodified in spite of his anti-commerical stance. Whether his intent is genuine or his protagonist a fiction, it matters not. HIs points are valid and the street art movement deserves no less than a feature length work of art to celebrate its birth and florit. Banksy can no more escape the contradictions of fame than any other person of visible talent. Even if all he is is his own "brand" without a face or identity.

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