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Wondering... Self-Referential and Still Missing the Point

In Banksy's "emotional potboiler", the painted elephant in the room is not the elephant in the room.

My column this week was going to be a thorough parsing of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, but I’m already kind of over the movie. At its core (if there is one), it's more or less an emotional potboiler about an artist disingenuously deploring the corrupt state of an art world with which he himself has become inextricably complicit. (If you really want to get into the excruciating minutiae of it all, I suggest you check out this article, or more to the point, the first comment below it, which is a much longer and more thorough analysis of the movie and its mechanics as an elaborate prank than the article it's commenting on.) More interesting to me were the conspiracy theories my last column stirred up suggesting that maybe Banksy, or the manufacturing of Banksy, is really more along the lines of an agent provocateur working for neo-liberal capitalist interests, like those Black Bloc protesters employed by the police to throw rocks through Starbucks windows to give the authorities an excuse to arrest and prosecute otherwise peaceful protesters.

In the janky world in which we’re currently living, it’s not too much of a stretch to suspect that Banksy’s pranks could be nothing more than an elaborate smoke screen, giving permission to street artists to sell out to the art world, and the art world permission to exploit them, as long as they both keep their claws dug into each other in a mutually exploitative Gordian knot, the prey with its claws too sunk into the hawk, unable to let go lest it fall to its death, but doomed to be eaten if it doesn’t. Even only as a metaphor, it’s pretty tasty.


When the red herring of the movie, Thierry Guetta (his very name signifying the ultimate annoying hipster) – a pure fictionalisation who might be based on a kernel of autobiographical truth – is removed from the equation, what you’re left with is an apologia of sorts, a cautionary tale from the artist known as Banksy. Guetta is meant to be the bête noire of the piece, the evil doppelganger who is the real sell-out, the donkey’s ass upon which the audience can pin the tail of its disapproval of the hijacking of street art by the orthodox art world. He’s Banksy’s Frankenstein’s monster. But we should all know by now that the real monster of the story is Dr. Frankenstein himself.

At its best, street art is renegade and outside the law, a form of civil disobedience that claims private property as public space and enforces a more individual, creative and political aesthetic over the oppressive, uniform commercial landscape of banal corporate advertising. At its worst, street art can be self-aggrandizing, crypto-capitalist and self-righteous – not that much different from the art of enterprising “career” artists, just smarter at deflecting its own self-serving agenda and freed from the played-out constraints of art discourse and gallery presentation.

Exit starts out promisingly enough, a sweet documentation of street art, the defacing of ads, paste-ups, throw-ups and slams, the tagging of subway cars – you know, making America beautiful without America’s consent, the way it should be. Then Banksy appears like an apparition, his voice an eerie distortion of an East End London lad’s, his face shadowed in a black hoodie, like Death. (I’ll get to Warhol later.) That’s when it starts to get scary.


The first warning sign is when Banksy is shown to have a gallery show at which someone, presumably the artist himself, has written “Banksy is a fucking sell-out” on the front window. It smells like the first pre-emptive strike, one of many that will come from his considerable arsenal to render him critic-proof: If you call yourself a sell-out first, then it doesn’t really matter if someone else does. Then come a couple of Banksy shows featuring live animals as painted canvasses, which could be considered the inauguration of what curator Christopher Eamon now calls the current “circus-ification” of art. Thierry Guetta, the eventual villain of the piece, and “half of Hollywood” descended on Banksy’s “Barely Legal” show in Los Angeles in 2006 to see a painted elephant in a commandeered warehouse on Skid Row, along with some art. Although it was clearly a well publicised and carefully orchestrated media event, Banksy claims that both he and the art world were confused about how it became such a sensation, and that it “marked the point at which street art was forced into the spotlight”. Forced, mind you. Thus starts the victimisation of the poor street artist, coerced into the commercial realm by the big, bad gallery world.

“We had the sort of attendance you’d expect for a decent show at MoMA," Banksy says, "so I think a lot of people in the art world were confused about how that would happen. As were we, to be honest.” Well, the painted elephant certainly didn’t hurt. “Suddenly it all became about the money," concludes a perplexed Banksy, “But it never was about the money.” It never is. Then comes the clincher: “Many of the biggest names in street art had moved into gallery careers,” Banksy blithely observes, which made me think immediately of the agent provocateur angle. With Banksy leading the way, protesting at every twist and turn, street art was well on its way to becoming as tame as the painted elephant, co-opted by the very system it formerly fought against. As Cyndi Lauper would say, it’s the same old fucking story.


But now this is where it gets really, wrist-slicingly depressing (or is it just my new meds?). When Banksy’s Frankenstein monster, reincarnated as the street artist Mr. Brainwash, creates his copycat show, "Life is Beautiful", a few years later, the film suddenly takes a sinister turn. All art descends into a self-referential soup composed of unfiltered pop culture images, one no more relevant or consequent than the next, a not-so-funhouse hall of mirrors where there are no longer any signposts of humanity, or politics, or purpose, only a miasma of nihilistic exhibitionism, exceptional cynicism, masturbatory hypernarcissism and uber-irony that has lost all awareness of its own original impetus and intentions. Bored and jaded hipsters share complicity in producing the proudly meaningless drivel that Mr. Brainwash promotes. If this is Banksy’s critique of enterprise art, and the hopelessly misguided direction of the art world, then the critique itself has become hopelessly lost, or at least completely ineffectual. The joke at this point has long since ceased being funny. It’s not a case of one joke too many, but a thousand. One joke’s too many, and a thousand’s not enough. It’s the pure, pathetic, pumped-up pointlessness of it all that becomes depressing.

Searching for a metaphor for it all, one is first tempted to reach into the closet for the Emperor’s New Clothes. But that Emperor has already been around the art world for a very long time, even before Andy. The fashion world is much better suited to that particular allegory because that’s what the fairy tale is about: fashion. Robert Altman did the Emperor’s New Clothes proper justice in an unfortunately not very good film, Pret-a-Porter, in which the final, climactic fashion show has the models walking down the catwalk naked: The clothes have become completely irrelevant to the industry. They’ve literally disappeared, evaporated. All that is left is the hubris, the pretensions, the hype, the empty conventions and the puffed-up capitalist mechanism that sells the invisible product to the masses. That’s what’s also happened to art, but the more appropriate myth for Banksy (or, god help us, Damien Hirst) is King Midas. What perhaps was once precious or even holy to him – art, the act of creation, an expression of philosophy, public dialogue, or even just a sincere way of seeing and comprehending the world – has turned into the production of meaningless art and endless capital. Everything he touches now turns to gold, even something as shitty as the Warhol rip-off art of Mr. Brainwash. (The movie was nominated for an Oscar, the ultimate golden calf.) Ah well. I guess that’s the new definition of success.

At the end of the film, which might have been more appropriately called “No Exit from the Gift Shop” (with all the Sartrean implications intact), Banksy says, philosophically, at the success of his Frankenstein’s monster, “Maybe it means art is a bit of a joke.” Ya think? His former manager offers, “I don’t know who the joke is on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke.” Hilarious! And then Banksy offers up the coup de grâce: “I don’t really know what the moral is. I mean, I used to encourage everyone I met to make art. I used to think everyone should do it. I don’t really do that so much any more.”

The “irony” is that Banksy is the artist who’s launched a thousand bad, hipster artists. He’s invented the Buffalo stance of hipsters: to hit the obvious political flashpoints, but to be above it all, to be distanced and removed, to be infinitely ironic, to be in on the inside joke, to exist within quotation marks, and to laugh all the way to the bank. He’s helped perpetuate a system he once hated. At this point he can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Dionysus took pity on King Midas and returned everything back to the way it was. Sadly, that was a one-time deal. Thanks a lot, Banksy.

Previously - Wondering… It's an Exit Not an Entrance