Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Diamond-encrusted Skulls

My partner's sister's son (my nephew-in-common-law?), was a junior member of that Bristol-based grafitti scene that gave rise to the Banksy phenomenon.  I'm pretty sure he knows the identity of the Man of Mystery (as does half of Bristol), though he's not telling, of course.  Being an upstanding citizen, I knew nothing about any of this, until I was given a couple of little Banksy books by said relations-in-common-law (Existencilism and Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall) which, ten years and a multinational art-world sensation later, are now sought-after collectibles. I was impressed, as everybody is, by the wit, inventiveness and May-68-ish political immediacy of the early, stencil-based Banksy.

If I was 20 or 30 years younger, I can see how this whole Street Art Scene would have been very much my can of spray paint.  The delight in the mild sense of danger reminds me of the days when we used to go fly-posting at night, one partner clutching a roll of incendiary posters, the other a carrier bag full of gloopy wallpaper paste and a brush.  It's not something to do if you take pride in your appearance.

However, the passing years have gradually endowed me with a degree of taste and discrimination, plus a grudging respect for the law, and the repetitive, imitative nature of most grafitti strikes me as little more than empty me-too posturing.  Not to mention being downright ugly, and utterly insensitive to context.  The noise these young people today call music, etc.

Bordeaux, 2010

The occasion for these CFC-free musings is that the other night I watched the film Exit Through the Gift Shop for the first time.  If you haven't seen it, I recommend that you do.  In many ways, it's a common-law-cousin of Man on Wire.  French obsessives with carte blanche to abandon home and hearth to pursue unlikely and dangerous hobbies are clearly not limited in supply.

I must admit that, to me, the whole film has the air of an elaborate Banksy prank, sprayed over a solid core of truth.  The central character, Thierry Guetta a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash (whom everyone calls "Terry"), is simply too genially barmy, in a puppy-eyed way, ever to have pulled off the massive and improbably triumphant show of his own hastily knocked-out work, "Life is Beautiful", which is the climax of the film.  The transformation from "fanboy with a video camera" to "swivel-eyed art nazi" is deeply unconvincing. He is also way too poor ever to have paid wages and supplied materials to the army of "elves" who actually manufacture the dreadful, derivative artwork that, after many pitfalls, delays and distractions, finally goes on display to a jostling horde of witless LA trend-seekers.

However, prank or not, it is fascinating to watch the genuine footage of street artists at work.  I, for one, hadn't realised that Shepard Fairey of Obama "hope" poster fame had first established himself as a street artist in Boston.  I liked the idea of painting the shadows of street furniture permanently onto the street, or of sticking up giant paper cutouts onto walls like enormous transfers.  It must be fun, hanging out and doing cool stuff in lofts and warehouses, with the prospect of art-scale fame and riches dangling just out of reach.  Although giving your best efforts away for free as an elaborate in-joke or exercise in self-branding -- what the marketing folk call a "loss leader" -- seems a pretty risky strategy.  Lots of fun, but it must be very sad, hitting 40 and realising you have missed the boat, and that the joke was on you all along.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 4 iii
That, of course, is where Exit Through the Gift Shop pulls its final punch, and becomes a fairy-tale rather than a cautionary tale.  The story arc of the Tragical True History of Thierry the Delusional Frenchman is rewritten -- at the very last moment, in the very last act -- into a late-Shakespearean "problem play", with improbable reconciliations, showers of treasure, living statues, and everything.

Up until the unlikely dénouement, I had felt genuinely uncomfortable watching the crash and burn of a talentless wannabe, who has decided to emulate his heroes, rather than merely act as their willing gofer and Boswell.  It made me very aware of the insecurities felt by anyone who takes the risk of "making art".  My God, you think, don't DO it...  Why has no-one told you that you really are no good at this, that you are trying to play in the wrong league?

At the same time, in effect, you are also being asked to ask yourself: do I look like this to others?  Am I also self-evidently not "the real thing"?  What bankable essence is left when you subtract Mr. Brainwash from Banksy?

I am told these are questions that loom at 3 a.m. round the bed of even the most prominent artists, mocking and undermining their achievement.  The criteria for "success" are so subjective, so market-driven, so accidental, so temporary.  The question of consensual fraudulence between artists, galleries, and collectors in the artistic marketplace is never far away, and has never been more topical.  And that -- whatever the truth of the matter of "Mr. Brainwash" -- is the real subject of Banksy's excellent film.

Southampton Common

1 comment:

Kent Wiley said...

The "whole fam damnaly" watched "Exit" two Christmases ago, and I think it's the first movie we've collectively enjoyed (except for the wife, who fell asleep). Shortly after I read "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art" by Don Thompson. It's Art because They say it is. But surely the entire movie is a Banksy ploy, and damnably good fun, even if the end is ludicrous and ugly.