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The Joke’s on Who?

‘You could stick all my shit in Tate Modern and have an opening with Tony Blair and Kate Moss on roller blades handing out vol-au-vents and it wouldn’t be as exciting as it is when you go out and paint something big where you shouldn’t do.’

(Banksy [allegedly])

What is the meaning of Che Guevara merchandise? The question was on my mind as I made my way to the screening of Exit Through the Gift Shop – the ‘Banksy film’, which premieres here in Stockholm on Friday (March 18, 2011). Does a Che t-shirt speak foremost of capitalism’s all-embracing power to corrupt and commodify everything, or does it bear witness to the irrepressible longing for a more decent world?

The question could be put similarly about the art of Banksy – available on a thousand tea mugs – and, indeed, about the street art icon’s secret-superhero-mythological public (non-)persona itself. His images are often directly anti-corporate, even anti-capitalist. Going by what he has (allegedly) said, graffiti is about reclaiming the environment we live in from corporate decision makers and their ad men, who, thanks to ‘[t]rademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law… can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity.’ It is a way of taking back, symbolically, what should be ours: ‘If you don’t own a train company then you go and paint on one instead.’ Tagging it ‘makes it belong to you. You can own half the city by scribbling your name over it.’

Graffiti is also about reclaiming art itself form the power of the ‘few hundred people in the world’, whose fortunes give them any real say over what we find on display in ‘our’ major institutions: ‘When you go to an Art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires…’ Graffiti takes art back into the everyday environments where it belongs and therefore ‘has more chance of meaning something or changing stuff than anything indoors. Graffiti has been used to start revolutions, stop wars, and generally is the voice of people who aren’t listened to.’ It’s ‘one of those few tools you have if you have almost nothing.’ (All alleged quotes from here.)

Yet, Banksy’s art is now increasingly moving into the galleries and the catalogues of the top-end auction houses (as well as onto the souvenir mugs). A Banksy is becoming a must for every ‘serious’ (read ‘filthy rich’) art collector. And with the opening of his hugely successful Los Angeles exhibition Barely Legal in 2005 attracting, not Moss and Blair, but, better up, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, we may perhaps start to wonder whether Banksy’s art has now become reduced to a quick way to gain ‘radical chic’ credentials for the Hollywood glitterati in an era of neo-poverty and fodder for the art market department of our current bubblenomics economy?

This question is precisely what is at stake in Banksy’s directorial debut. Ostensibly it is a documentary about Thierry Guetta, a middle-aged French immigrant and shopkeeper in Los Angeles, who becomes obsessed with filming street artists at work. Sporting a pork-pie hat and huge, bushy sideburns, he looks like a funny sidekick in a seventies detective series. Guetta becomes a chronicler and accomplice of LA-based Shepard Fairey (famous for the Obama ‘Hope’ poster) and finally gets a chance to help the elusive Banksy out, as gofer, driver and guide, when the latter visits California. The artists think he is making a documentary about them, but eventually discover that Guetta has no idea about filmmaking and has never even bothered to look at the endless hours of material he’s shot over several years.

Banksy then takes charge of the film and turns the camera on Guetta. Encouraged by Banksy and Fairey, Guetta transforms into a street artist himself, adopting the name Mr. Brainswash or MBW. He mortgages his business and home and rents 125,000 sq. feet of former TV studios in Hollywood. Then he hires a staff of artists to do the actual work of producing art – an endless series of pieces more or less copying Banksy, Fairey and Andy Warhol – according to his instructions. Guetta prefers talking to reporters rather than actually creating any art. A clever PR-campaign, largely built on endorsements from his famous friends, and the help of the team of Daniel Salin, the producer of Barely Legal, makes the show into a great success. Within months an MBW sells for tens of thousands of dollars.

Ever since the film was first shown at Sundance in January 2010, the discussion has been raging (here and here, for instance) as to whether this is a documentary or a hoax. The artists themselves insist that it is all strait truth. Well, they would. My hunch is that it was all scripted from the start, though Banksy/Fairey possibly stumbled on the figure of Guetta and saw a great comic actor waiting to be released on the world. But Guetta is, in that case, also a fiction that becomes real through success, as MBW has seemingly become an established artist. Fiction has become reality and reality has been scripted, like fiction.

On the surface MBW is the opposite of Banksy. The former all about individual personality, a larger-than-life jester with an unforgettable face that completely overshadows the forgettable art he (doesn’t) produce. The latter not even a face, but a name that conjures up unforgettable images. Banksy’s public persona is entirely made up of rumours and absence. He may be a former butcher’s apprentice or a middle-class public school boy. But who knows? Maybe ‘he’ is a woman. Maybe ‘he’ is a collective of socialist revolutionary black lesbians. But does this secrecy mean that Banksy escapes the mind-numbing star system, the fake individualism, of the capitalist art market with its anti-democratic, hierarchical access to self-expression? Does it save Banksy as a potent, empowering symbol of the popular re-claiming of both art and our communities that he speaks of? Or does it make ‘Banksy’ an even more perfect brand name, one without any real substance and therefore one that can be spun any which way the money flows?

As in the case of Che merchandise, there is no easy answer. He is both and neither. The meaning of art is never entirely fixed and reducible to the paint on the wall or canvas. It depends, finally, on contexts. It is realised and reinvented over and over again. On the walls of the filthy rich a Banksy becomes just another piece of luxury merchandise, as drained of radical meaning as a Guetta. Some have suggested that Guetta is in fact (played by) Banksy himself. Maybe Guetta is a Banksy, the white, male, non-lesbian member of the collective. Either way, with the creation of the public persona of Guetta, it is a part of himself that Banksy draws out into the light and shows off in exaggerated, isolated shape.

At the end of the film Banksy, the hooded non-presence, compares Guetta to Andy Warhol: ‘Warhol repeated famous icons until they became meaningless. But Thierry… really made them meaningless.’ ‘Meaningless’, here, means that they are perfectly adaptable to the art market, pure instances of artistic merchandise without any uncomfortable traces of critique. Guetta is the ‘Warhol’ part of Banksy, dictating the production of commodities in ‘Factory’ style and overseeing glib PR-campaigns. It’s Banksy as ad man. It is also as good as inevitable. We live in a fully capitalist society. There are no individual outs. To eat we must sell (out), to some extent. And of course almost no one can escape the seduction of fame and/or money entirely.

Guetta is part of all of us. But this does not mean that he is all there is. One of the greatest mistakes of the left, and also a powerful weapon in the hands of the right, is the too facile charge of hypocrisy. If we don’t live inhumanly perfect, ascetic lives we are not morally allowed to criticise. Shut up, or don’t accept ‘capitalist’ bread, or at least not ‘capitalist’ roses. It goes without saying that accepting this logic leaves few able to criticise. But what we must do instead is to realise and criticise what this ruthless market society does with ourselves, but without self-defeating moral judgment. And this seems to be what Banksy does in Exit.

Illusions breed disillusionment. Facing up to the truth is the starting point for recognising clearly not only what has been ‘sold out’, but also what has not. For instance, in the same year as the Barely Legal show, 2005, Banksy also produced nine images on the Israeli apartheid wall on the West Bank, among them the famous picture of the little girl carried up into the air by eight balloons, symbolically conquering the force of gravity. Different context, different meaning. Even if we assume (and I don’t!) that the apartheid wall images were made only with the idea of self-publicity, that is never what they will come to mean to me or, I would say, to millions of others. In the end, the meaning of Banksy, of his public persona and of his art, is decided not simply by the art market or the Banksy outfit itself, but by all of us. By the contexts we create. Only the history we make will decide who becomes the final butt of the joke, those of us who have nothing and want to ‘change stuff’ or the players of the art market.

For now, I choose to believe that the joke is on them, and I laugh heartily at what may well turn out to be the best satirical movie of the year. So go see the film, then go out and be a Banksy yourself. Grab a spray can and head for the nearest piece of corporate advertising terrorism. Or invent your own thing. Because even if tagging the world doesn’t actually make it ours, the symbolic action can prepare us psychologically for the idea of taking it back one of these days.

DANIEL LINDVALL is Film International’s editor-in-chief.


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