Thursday, May 20, 2010

Banksy's Exit Through The Gift Shop

“People either love me or they hate me, or they don’t really care,” admits Banksy, the mystery figure whose iconic street art has made his name more recognisable than any other contemporary artist of our time. His new film Exit Through the Gift Shop is sure to satisfy all three levels of appreciation.

In the brief history of graffiti culture the documentary has played a pivotal role in disseminating ideas. None more significantly than 1984‘s Stylewars which views like an instruction manual for a culture built around the heady mix of Hip-hop, break dancing and aerosol based graffiti. Bootlegged and passed along an endless chain of underground connection, Stylewars circled the globe. Before long, New York style graffiti was appearing in every city in the Western world.

But this insular subculture in which the non-refundable currency of ‘respect’ was awarded for displays of finesse and daring was limited by its own restrictions and doomed to stagnation. Inevitably some graffiti writers began to tire of writing their names in ever more elaborate styles and garish colour combinations. Some hit upon the idea of shifting the subject matter of their art to something other than their own name. Street art was born.

By this time the Internet was in full swing and a few key artists would be able to ride the international wave of fascination that ensued. But none did so with a brand as strong as Banksy’s. His mainly black and white stencils conveyed none of the ‘style’ so prized by the previous generation of graffiti artists. In its place was a message, often political, always irreverent, clear and immediately effective. Banksy was a new kind of rebel, seemingly tailor made, for a new kind of youth who found little expression in the sexual rebellion exhausted by their parents generation.

The new front line was the sanctity of private property upheld by a painfully superficial society, obsessed with lifestyle and oblivious to its own terminal malaise. But for every one of Banksy’s images that convey a profound message with beautiful simplicity there are several more that seem no less superficial than the society that they set out to ape. But more than anything it’s his taste for hype that threatens the authenticity that forms the bread and butter of Banksy’s myth.

Exit Through The Gift Shop is a masterpiece in myth maintenance. Rather than making a film about himself Banksy has made a film about another street artist, Mr Brain Wash. A latecomer in the game, Mr Brain Wash mimicked the hype and branding methods of his idols with such skill that it threatened to expose the superficiality of the whole movement. The story is intended to make us think twice about authenticity but it's obvious that Banksy’s been wondering about his own authenticity. In this sense, those who love him will be pleased to discover that Banksy understands why he’s loved and that he’s not about to give the game away any time soon.

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