Sunday, February 6, 2011

Break Fast Off Duchampians

Instead of watching the Super Bowl I ended up streaming Exit Through the Gift Shop, a riotous documentary of sorts "by" English street artist Banksy. Ostensibly the product of 10,000 hours of footage obsessively shot by eccentric L.A. Frenchman Thierry Guetta, it follows a number of notable street artists at work before zeroing in on the ever mysterious Banksy, and then flipping when Guetta rechristens himself Mr. Brainwash and goes on to sell over a million dollars worth of work.

Questions of authenticity have been dogging the film at least since its Sundance premier, but that's actually not a strike against it; if anything, the possibility of a hoax actually enhances its potency. The third act, the most easily contested, depicts Mr. Brainwash as an unlikely overnight success whose tacky Pop Art (dig the Warhol "Marilyn" morph series) is more audacious than considered or skillful. His success is like a bad joke. Shades of Damien Hirst. Banksy himself wonders aloud what art is supposed to mean when rich collectors shell out thousands of dollars for hackery. What indeed does it mean when Mr. Brainwash's Don't Be Cruel" sits alongside their Warhols, Klees... and Banksys? If Fairey's political-pop-culture stencilings and Shepard Fairey's sincere-ironic iconography graffiti is art, what of Mr. Braindead's empty derivatives? (If Mr. Brainwash is indeed an elaborate hoax, the awfulness of his largely Banksy-ripped-off work indicates a fine self-awareness on the "real" artist's part.)

Exit Through the Gift Shop's approach thus makes for one of those great form-content marriages: the question of "is it real?" goes hand-in-hand with the deeper question of "is it art?" It's also very clever and funny, which is so much more preferable than stodgy debate. The redefinition of art, its severance of labor from merit, was begun by Marcel Duchamp's signing a urinal. What better approach to reappraising this idea, then, than to take the piss out of it?

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