Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Irony, Cash and Parody: Analyzing Exit Through the Gift Shop

"When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires." - Banksy

Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film directed by anonymous street artist Banksy, tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a transplanted Frenchman in Los Angeles and his fascination with street art, meeting other street artists and eventually becoming an art star himself.

A number of issues come up throughout the film – problems of the art market, problems of appropriation and distinguishing “art” and “graffiti”. Bansky has been making bank with his art, although it may have been unintentional. This is not the first time this has happened in the art world and it will not be the last. In this paper, I will discuss a number of examples relating to these issues and give art historical context where appropriate.

There is question as to whether or not the film is authentic. Makers and stars of the film including artist Shepard Fairey swear it is, a reviewer for the New York Times dubbed it a potential “prankumentary”, and famed critic Roger Ebert felt the possibility of it being a hoax made it even more interesting.

The film opens up with a parody logo of the Paramount Pictures snow covered mountain top, sprayed with bullets and “Paranoid” put in place of “Paramount”. This kind of appropriation/subvertising activist combination sets the tone for the themes in the entire documentary.

Putting us on?

Most of the statements attributed to Banksy are highly critical of modern art. In the film, he talks about “most normal art” being oil on canvas and sculpture, and street art goes against that tradition. While it does of course go beyond that tradition and particularly the tradition of formally taught artists, Banksy seems oblivious to or unwilling to acknowledge huge strides in the art world with artists who changed the face of what art was and ought to be- artists like Marcel Duchamp, who said anything could be art and Gilbert and George who proclaimed themselves living sculptures. So, it is difficult to know if Banksy knows about these art historical traditions, or if he is parroting the line that so many people believe – modern art is bogus and market prices obscure it, making it even more so.

Similarities Between Other Artists

Because the Exit Through the Gift Shop deals with street art, it is interesting to note that art collector Wendy Asher, while showing off her collection, admitted on camera to not liking Keith Haring. This is ironic, because Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were street artists before becoming art world darlings. Asher appreciates Banksy’s work, but doesn’t seem to acknowledge that his fame might not have been as likely if it weren’t for artists like Haring coming before him and warming up the art crowd.

Shepard Fairey, in talking about his ubiquitous Andre the Giant wheatpaste posters and stickers explained that the more people see the stickers, the more people ask each other, and the more it “gains real power from perceived power.” This is slightly the opposite concept of what Andy Warhol tried to do with his repetitive imagery, and ironically close to what advertising posits to do, which was repeat images until they lost their meaning. Since Fairey does own the Obey fashion line (which I must admit I’m a big fan of), it seems fitting that there is irony in this department.

The Banksy show “Barely Legal” brought up other art world references. Banksy said the piece de resistance, the painted elephant in the room, turned the show into an event. I immediately thought of so-called “New York slacker artist” Sean Landers and some early videos he did using a chimpanzee to make portraits. The imposition of the elephant in the room is also like a less intellectual version of Martin Creed’s Work No 850, a conceptual installation which featured runners sprinting through Tate Britain. Creed said, “I thought, ‘Why do you have to look at paintings for a long time? Why not look for a second?’…Sometimes when you go around museums you feel it is quite a laborious task…It is not for me to say what it is about. This is something to look at, just like a painting.” 1

Mr. Brainwash’s art work appears to have borrowed from a number of sources aside from the initial aspirations of being like Banksy and Fairey. His large spray Campbell’s soup can borrows from Andy Warhol, of course, but also from Claes Oldenberg and his tendency to blow up everyday items like cakes and cherry spoons. Mr. Brainwash’s monster made of TV’s takes a page from Korean media artist Nam June Paik, and his “PUNK” work was appropriated from Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” sculpture and painting, which was also appropriated by the Canadian collective General Idea as “AIDS”.

Even some of the statements Banksy made recall statements made by other artists. Reacting to Mr. Brainwash’s show, Banksy said, “I always used to encourage anyone I knew to make art – I don’t really do that so much anymore.” This speaks directly to Joseph Beuys’s feeling that everyone was an artist.

Unintentional Sellers

Harlem artist David Hammons tried to move away from the art market with unconventional methods like attempting to sell snowballs on a New York City sidewalk. Hammons said, “The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize, not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?...I’ll play with the street audience. That audience is much more human, and their opinion is from the heart. They don’t have any reason to play games.” 2 Earth work artists like Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer traveled to the great yonder producing works in hard-to-find locations far away from urban gallery settings, often in desolate southwestern U.S deserts. The art market will find a way to work around these things and sell photos of the work, which fetch high prices. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s the way things are, and a good way of cataloging impressive work of the past century. Besides, when critiquing art from any lens it is important to separate the “worth” of the art (measured in psychological, emotional, pragmatic or social terms) from the worth of the art at auction. Prices are irrelevant when considering the aesthetics of work, they have to be, just as they have to be when considering the merit of a novel because – best selling or not, some novels have changed the landscape of literature, and some haven’t, and the latter may be more likely to get put on Oprah’s reading list.

Film Elements

One scene in the film that I found particularly telling was a shot of a Banksy work being sold at auction in a lot that also contained work by Takashi Murakami (called the Japanese Andy Warhol by some) and a large Damien Hirst spot painting, one in a series famously done by assistants of his. Warhol had a factory, Hirst, Jeff Koons and a plethora of other artists have assistants, and Banksy has a collective. They’re not as different as you may think.

When Banksy realized the title of his film was also the name of a West London cover band, he decided to make an unusual amends – after several email conversations with the band’s drummer Simon Duncan, who agreed to change the band’s name to “Brace Yourself,” Banksy sent him an original piece featuring the grim reaper in a bumper car. The car had “Brace Yourself” scrawled on the front and the work was insured for at least 200,000 British Pounds. 3 Since Banksy did not know beforehand about the group, there is the question of why he chose the name in the first place. A number of museums have gift shop exits, or at least gift shops adjacent to the exit. Most amusement parks have gift shop exits and patrons are told to brace themselves before a powerful ride. Some museum patrons have been told the same, as when disclaimers go up warning visitors of potentially objectionable material in the gallery. And while visitors have a choice whether to enter a gallery or a specific wing of a museum, street art creates an imposition that is hard to move away from, it’s saving grace from being deemed aesthetically dictatorial is that it is illegal, and thus, ephemeral For this reason, I question Banksy’s feeling about his art never having been about hype and money. Maybe the money part isn’t all that important to him, but the hype is predictable considering how ubiquitous and socio-politically charged his art is.

Theorist Pierre Levy discusses that the “art in an age of collective intelligence functions as a cultural attractor, drawing together like-minded individuals to form new knowledge communities.”4 All of the borrowing from past artists serves as a form of collective artistic intelligence. Banksy has been a huge cultural attractor, particularly in attracting people who would ordinarily want nothing to do with the art world. While outsider art existed before Banksy, Banksy is a cult phenomenon who somehow manages to live in the art market world as well as the street activist world.

There is a lot of the bad faith in the story, most of which revolves around Mr. Brainwash. Is Thierry Guetta actually Mr. Brainwash? Did he create this persona because he had a legitimate interest in making art or did he do it because he thought he could make a quick buck? Further, given all the similarities between Guetta’s work and the work of other artists, including Banksy and Fairey, did Guetta model his work directly in the spirit of these artists or is it a coincidence? These questions might never be answered, and that’s probably for the better, it wouldn't be as fun a documentary and story if we had the cheat codes right in front of us.

Works Cited

1. Alberge, Dalya. Martin Creed installation in Tate Britain's Duveen Galleries will run and run. 1 July 2008. The Sunday Times UK. <>

2. Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940. London: Lawrence King Publishing Ltd., 2011. Print.

3. Thorpe, Vanessa. What's in a name? For Simon Duncan's band, a £200,000 Banksy... 25. April. 2010. The Observer <>

4. Jenkins, Henry. Transmedia Storytelling 101. 22. March. 2007. The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins. <>

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Four Works on the Topic of AIDS

Inspired by the last and now incredibly notorious item on a list I read today, I decide to post photos of four artworks dealing with the subject of AIDS. I wish this idea had come to me during a relevant time, like World AIDS Day, but anytime is a good time to discuss the subject. When I was about three, my uncle Jimmy, an artist, died of AIDS. I didn't know about this until high school. While I didn't really know him well since I was so young, I own some of his old art books and sketch pencils, so I hope that if I one day get more noticed in the art world, I can dedicate some of that success to a possible artistic gene in the family. :)

Here are the works:
1. "Fire in my Belly" - David Wojnarowicz (1987) [Va-nah-row-vitch (took me a while to get that correctly.)]

This photo is a still from a video that, once relatively unknown to the public at large, was suddenly launched into the spotlight by angsty, parochial politicians striving to put their foot down on "extravagant" arts funding, while still playing Santa Claus with other industries. The piece was banned by the Smithsonian, which caused an uproar and was later purchased by MoMA. Read more about the controversy and the work here.

The video can be seen on YouTube. (Seriously, what did we do before it?) It's a very moving and well put together film. It's a shame some people get stuck on one image and can't let go of their narrow mindedness. The film is far less exploitative of Christ imagery than Mel Gibson's Passion. But, of course, Wojnarowicz was gay and Gibson is a Catholic, so you know who the politicians will side with.

2. "AIDS" - General Idea (the sculpture version was done in 1987, not certain about the paintings.)

The Canadian artist collective General Idea made up of artists Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, and AA Bronson worked together from 1969-1994. In the 1980s during the rise of the AIDS crisis, they appropriated Robert Indiana's famous LOVE work and used it to raise awareness on the issue of AIDS. More of these great conceptual works can be seen here. Sadly, both Partz and Zontal died of AIDS in 1994. Bronson continues to exhibit work. Check out his website.

3. "Ignorance = Fear" Keith Haring (1989)

Keith Haring began his career as a graffiti artist in NYC. His images like Radiant Baby and the figures featuring action lines are instantly recognizable and custom-made for activist intepretations. The pink triangle image comes from the badge gay men were forced to wear during the Holocaust. Haring is certainly the most well-known artist on this list and well-worth looking into as his work is such a predominant force in the art world and the world of media studies.

4. "Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1991)

I first learned about this work in the book "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark" by art economist Don Thompson. While Thompson did a lot of great research and I have learned a lot so far (I'm a bit over halfway done with reading it) he doesn't really get it when it comes to the value of contemporary art. He's too preoccupied with the art market when really he should understand that prices are irrelevant to the value (cultural, artistic, historical, individual, etc) of the work.

With this piece, Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban artist like my uncle, sought to create an abstracted portrait of his friend who was suffering from AIDS. At first glance, the piece recalls "Fat Corner" by Joseph Beuys and gnawed chocolate and lard pieces of Janine Antoni, but the "portrait" nature of the work recalls Dan Flavin's neon tubing portraits and Frank Stella's minimalist portrait of Carl Andre. There is a rich history evoked in this work, and while fat and chocolate have deeply ingrained connotations, the colorful candies create a beautiful mosaic for such a troubling subject. It treats a heavy topic with an aesthetically pleasing hand. The candy, which weighed in total 175 lbs, the weight of Gonzalez-Torres' partner Ross Laycock (d. 1991) was meant to be consumed by visitors, illustrating a continuous participatory art event that metaphorically expressed the wasting away of the body due to AIDS. Once fully consumed, the pile is replaced, symbolic of continuous life and the struggle to carry on in the face of adversity. It's rare to see a moving work constructed of things we typically overlook, like junk food, which is one reason this piece is so fantastic. Gonzalez-Torres himself died of AIDS in 1996. See some of his other works here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I love a good exploited taboo, and I also love Bret Easton Ellis novels, so today's post will feature two works that use cocaine as a medium.

To the left I have included a terribly small photo of the first work, Exhaled Cocaine by Cornelia Parker. Her piece is on the pedestal toward the back of the room. I couldn't find a better photo than this, but I will soon upload a close-up of it taken from one of my Matthew Collings books, where I first saw the piece.

"For ‘Exhaled Cocaine’ Parker persuaded Customs & Excise to give her the ashes of seized, incinerated cocaine, presented by the artist as an end product ‘breathed out’ by a crucial process in its history."

Of course, you can't really "exhale" the substance, but you can burn it, which destroys and purifies, but also recalls the process in which it was made- using flammable materials like kerosene on coca leaves. So, the work acts as a cyclical tableau.

The second work (shown above) is Cocaine Buffet by Rob Pruitt, which consists of a pile and long line of cocaine offered up on mirrors lining the floor of an artist studio like a two-dimensional Rube Goldberg device. Participants were invited to "engage" with the work, which they eagerly did. Lygia Clark, eat your heart out.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Where art thou, Sean Landers?

I found a nice series of Sean Landers work on this site:

There were several on the Andrea Rosen Gallery website, but now only three remain, which makes me sad. I'm not sure who is representing Landers right now, there isn't a ton of info on him and he no longer has a page on Saatchi Online. He has a website with a ton of images on it, but be advised, it does take several minutes to load. I almost thought he was pulling one over on curious fans. ;-)

If you like humorous art, it's worth checking him out. I've written about his work briefly on this blog before. I think he's among the most clever American artists I've encountered as of yet, I love his irreverence.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Richard Prince Joke

Richard Prince, sue him a millions times.. his jokes and style is still killer.

I'll write on the copyright issue soon. Spoiler alert: The judge is a fool.

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I love to read about linguistics, behavioral economics, theory and philosophy. I listen to music some might call outdated, write satirical and high testosterone plays, consume too much caffeine and ruthlessly defend modern and contemporary art.