Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film by the English street artist Banksy, purports to be a documentary about a shallow, somewhat unstable Frenchman who videotapes the street artists he idolizes—Banksy and Shepherd Fairey among them—and eventually decides to becomean artist himself. “Mr. Brainwash” or “MBW,” as he calls himself, creates a publicity machine that transforms him into an overnight sensation. His work, which we never see him actually make, consists largely of inept imitations of Warhol and other artists. Mr. Brainwash may be a hoax perpetrated by Banksy and Fairey to critique the commercialization of street art; but real or fake, the film makes its point. The contrast between MBW and artists such as Banksy and Fairey is clear in the subtlety and inventiveness of their work, and in the time they have taken to develop it.
In response to my last Inside the Museum posting, Christian Hallstein, Director of Undergraduate Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, posed to me a series of significant and difficultquestions, among them why visual art is important. One answer is proffered by Exit Through the Gift Shop. At most, MBW is an entertainer; but art is important to our pleasure-driven, entertainment-foc used society
precisely because at its best it isn’t entertainment. Artists are expected to think unconventionally, so understanding their work takes time and effort. The payoff can be great. When visual form and intellectual and emotional content are working synergistically, the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts; the deeper you dig, the more thematic complexity and formal innovation you can find. In the process, you may glean new insights into some of the ideas that shape your life and thought.
Dr. Hallstein also asked how we might get beyond an artist’s reputation and the question of “demand” for his or her work to address matters of intrinsic aesthetic value. I believe in quality but not in intrinsic value. That Banksy’s work is more refined and carefully considered than that of MBW may be evident in Exit Through the Gift Shop, but that isn’t a guarantee that people will consistently admire it. Work that is prized today may not be tomorrow, because society is in constant flux, and meaning in art is as unstable and dynamic as culture itself. The conceptual and perceptual impact—and so the meaning—of an object shifts just in the move from the artist’s studio to a museum gallery. Think of how much greater the change in meaning must be from era to era. A prime example of this is the Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli; all but expunged from art history for over three hundred years, he was rediscovered in 19th-century England because his work spoke to issues that were relevant to the aesthetic and social concerns of that time and place.
“How,” Dr. Hallstein asks, “can the question of the value of art be made more accessible and interesting to people who scorn the entire enterprise?” Scorn, like unreflective opinion, is hard to overcome; people have to be open-minded to be reachable. A big question for museums is how we oppose the powerful social and political forces that are creating that scorn to begin with. (Despite its good points, even Exit Through the Gift Shop draws a cynical, exploitative image of the art world.) The only answer I’ve come up with so far is the thoughtful and relentless voicing of the importance of what museums do for the whole of society.
Until next month,