Commentary on Contemporary Art

Oct, 27, 2015
By Lauren Gutierrez

The documentary film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, provides a sneak peek into the underground world of street art and the story of a man who hung around its fringes long enough to figure out how he could cut himself a slice of the pie. We are introduced to Thierry Guetta at the beginning of the film as an eccentric, family man, obsessed with filming his daily life which we later learn stems from childhood when his mother passed away. I believe he became enamored with the excitement, illegality and innately risky activity that is painting the streets and adorning it with your own self expression. Because the street artists believed him to be a filmmaker, he got to tag along with them under false pretences, earned the trust of some and drew skepticism from others.

The artists that he admired most in the film are Banksy and Shepard Fairey who have both respectively earned their stripes and the recognition that they now have. Fairey is a well educated student of fine arts who gained awareness through the skateboarding scene with his Obey Giant stickers and posters. He was catapulted to fame with the Hope posters he created for the 2008 Obama campaign and has sold his pieces in exhibitions around the world and even in museums.

Street Scene Hong Kong (CC BY 2.0) March 12, 2013

The anonymous street artist, Banksy, is popular for his use of stencils to quickly embellish his artwork onto walls and uses this platform as a way to express his political ideologies. He has produced many well known art exhibitions around the world and pushes boundaries like hanging his own artwork in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and painting a mural onto the West Bank concrete wall in Israel. These artists did not emerge overnight, rather they took years to cultivate their craft.

Banksy – artwork, no date/location

Although Guetta’s unveiling as a filmmaker was a flop after he put together a nightmarish montage of the footage he had been collecting, the street artists he ran with still encouraged him to become an artist in his own right. I think he came off as disingenuous because he didn’t take time to refine his craft and set himself apart; Instead he borrowed major concepts from other artists like Andy Warhol and rendered them meaningless. He was attempting to appropriate art but lacked a new meaning behind his recontextualization nor did he have a well defined critical commentary on the original source.

In this portion of the film I think we see distinct differences in approaches between artists. Guetta a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash (MBW) put together an expensive studio exhibition with all the bells and whistles; It included media coverage, public endorsements and gimmicks like giving original prints to the first 200 in attendance. This is in contrast to Banksy’s first art exhibition which he organized with the help of a bunch of other street artists and held in a tunnel next to a pub. Banksy has also sold his artwork for a lot of money but he’s socially aware, which he illustrates in this quote, “I think it was easier when I was the underdog, and I had a lot of practise at it. The money that my work fetches these days makes me a bit uncomfortable, but that’s an easy problem to solve—you just stop whingeing and give it all away. I don’t think it’s possible to make art about world poverty and then trouser all the cash, that’s an irony too far, even for me”

There is an analysis to be made about today’s contemporary art industry which is not necessarily intended for the high brow but for the streets and is not driven by profit but by principle. In Fairey’s words, “There has always been a disconnect with the sort of elitist structure of the high-art world – and my distaste is at odds with my feeling that art should aspire to do great things.” Mr. Brainwash knew this but also knew if he could mass produce his work (i.e. producing hundreds of prints practically overnight) and garnish enough media attention that he could make a lot of money.

You could draw the analogy between what MBW did and what a record label does when they swoop in to mimic the style of an underground indie artist making great, original music. It’s then picked up by a Top 40 station (the media) and the public is duped into buying the cheaper, watered down version of the original because capitalism favors mass production and hype.

In the end all three of these artists belong to the same contemporary art industry; The difference is in motivations, that is, their driving force. Mr. Brainwash knows how to make art that sells, he doesn’t seem too interested in the meaning because he’s driven by profit. As opposed to Banksy and Fairey who know how to make art that has an impact, inspires change and action.

Mr. Brainwash. Elvis Presley (Pink), 2009

Then again, who’s to say what is or isn’t art? Mark Rothko painted blocks of colors with no explicit meaning except whatever one you placed up on it. Marcel Duchamp submitted the “Fountain” to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit and it was considered art when in reality it was just a porcelain urinal. I guess I conclude that MBW’s print of Elvis Presley holding a Fisher Price toy gun is also art and the meaning simply rests upon the viewing audience because contemporary art is an ever evolving abstraction of human expression in its present time, there is no apparent right or wrong way to do it.

Works Cited

  1. Collins, Lauren. “Banksy Was Here: The Invisible Man of Graffiti Art.” The New Yorker. 14 May 2007. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
  2. Ellsworth-Jones, Will. “The Story Behind Banksy: On His Way to Becoming an International Icon, the Subversive and Secretive Street Artist Turned the Art World Upside-down.” Smithsonian Magazine. 1 Feb. 2013. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
  3. Pop, Iggy. “Shepard Fairey.” Interview Magazine. 4 May 2010. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
  4. “Street Art Bio | Street Artists Biographies.” Street Art Bio | Street Artists Biographies. n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.