Posts Tagged ‘Kenny Scharf’

Art in the Streets, MOCA, Los Angeles, Spring-Summer, 2011


In the dark days of the late 1970s, New York City was at its lowest ebb.  Although Jimmy Carter never uttered the word “malaise” in his infamous “Malaise Speech” (1979), the Big Apple was a psycho poster city for malaise.  Infuriated by the benign neglect of the Nixon Administration after the golden age of the Civil Rights era, communities of color felt alienated and angry.  At the very moment in time when Milton Glazer was designing his “I Love New York” campaign, graffiti was everywhere, crawling and climbing over all available surfaces.

Graffiti was an alien invasion of the Other, who had taken up weapons,  cans of spray paint, and was attacking the city.  No place was safe, unless of course it was the carefully guarded enclaves of the rich—or those very people who would, in the eighties, eagerly spend their surplus income to buy the art of the very invaders who had terrorized the populace.   And now it has all come home to roost, graffiti art has been consecrated by time and space and has been elevated into “art” and enshrined and mummified in the confines of the museum, where its original intent can be muffled and its screams can go unheard. It is no coincidence that those who had been written off by society called themselves “writers.”

In an earlier article on the censorship of the BLU mural, I criticized the curator of Art in the Streets, Jeffrey Deitch, for whitewashing the very kind of art he was attempting to promote and support.  In a subsequent preview of Art in the Streets, I wrote for Artscene, I critiqued the very concept of putting street art in a museum.  And I take back none of what I have written. But I will be the first to say that the exhibition itself is a dazzling fun ride, full of great art, and a real success for Deitch.  The exhibition has been consistently well attended and the broad public—all ages, all ethnicities—seem to love the show and must be spreading the good news through word of mouth.  The lines outside the Geffen go on forever, as people wait patiently to get in.

While there is good news and bad news about Art in the Streets, I would like to sort out some terminology for the sake of clarity, however momentary. Let’s draw a distinction between “graffiti” and “street art,” based on the intentions of the makers, which are very different.  “Graffiti” tends to be tagging, an aggressive mark making by disenfranchised people (mostly males) in spaces that are supposedly “public.” On one level the tags are signatures, relatives of the palm prints of the cave dwellers and on another level the need to not just paint but to deface surfaces comes from an entirely different place.  Tag bombs explode and disperse like shrapnel, cutting into the social contract that teaches respect for public spaces.

Graffiti is not merely stating, “Kilroy was here,” a conquering code employed by American G. I.s during their triumphal march over Europe during the Second World War. Yes, graffiti is a gesture of conquest, a visual take-over of territory, but graffiti is so much more.

Graffiti is a sign of complete and utter separation from the larger society and a signal that there is no investment in its values.  Graffiti is a social protest, an indication that the rules and laws have no meaning to the man with the can, to the boy who randomly sprays a park bench, because they have been left out, left behind, and abandoned.  Graffiti is a means of taking ownership, as if signing a property deed, and becomes, by default, a way of redistributing that which is designated as private to those who have nothing.  To those inscribed within the cordon sanitaire of a slum, territory is everything: your street, your block—that is your world to defend.  You mark your terrain.

Graffiti is a cry of rage and pain and the larger society correctly sensed danger, but instead of taking the warning to heart, the knee jerk reaction of the establishment was to strike back and to wage war—not at the poverty and the hopelessness that generated the practice—but at the young people who had lost all hope.  All signifiers of social defiance and class interrogation coming from the disenfranchised were wiped out.  The goal of the mainstream society was to whitewash the cultural condemnation from those who were not authorized to speak.

Out of this urban counter culture came artists who made “street art” and that is what this exhibition offers: art.  Lady Pink is a case in point.  She is seen in a photograph, post-tag, sitting in a subway car alive and crawling with graffiti, but it is 1982, and she was able to slip into the art world during that brief period when the art doors of exclusivity cracked open a bit.

Street art is not graffiti; graffiti is not street art. Street art evolves out of graffiti when artists realized that walls and halls and underpasses and overpasses, streets and sidewalks could be utilized as surfaces of expression.  Most of these artists were “outsider” artists, so named because they were of the wrong color or wrong socio-economic strata to be “insider,” i.e. white and middle class.  These “outsiders,” better termed “artistic outlaws,” were alienated from art school philosophies and could care less about the unwritten rules that governed the art world.

These artists just wanted to make art.

This may seem like a simple statement of fact, but think of the extremes these artists went through to put their art in the streets.  They risked life and limb; they risked arrest and a criminal record.  The larger community considered what they were doing as “vandalism” and a violation of the sanctity of public property, which is untouchable.  We have become so accustomed to art being incarcerated inside of museums that we are stunned when art appears to walk among us.  During the Renaissance, public art was everywhere. True it was used as propaganda, to educate the public of the viewpoint of the dominant class, but art was allowed outside and was expected to communicate.

Street art is an attempt to speak out, to speak up on the part of a large segment of society that had been written off. The dominant culture could see only art where it wasn’t supposed to be—the galleries and the museums—a younger and hipper audience saw themselves and their lives.  But street art, unlike raw visceral graffiti, had pretensions to “art.” Despite the non-art materials and the non-art settings, street art displayed some disconcerting markers of “art.”  Many of the artists were self-taught, informally but rigorously trained, sharing their practices as if in a Renaissance workshop, honing their techniques and skills under arduous circumstances.  An art lover or a fellow artist could immediately see a firm grasp of the basics: color harmony, hue distribution, composition, facility with line, personal style and inventiveness.  Street art was at once a collective style and an expression of the unique individual signature, recognizable by all.

If we go back to the time during which graffiti and street art was developing, the late 70s and early 80s was a time when the separation between art and life was near complete.  The sudden insertion of “art” into “life” was shocking, because street art mocked the conventional definition of art.  For art to be “art” an object had to be special, designated as “art” via a process of legitimation.  Street art was totally illegitimate, totally unconsecrated, and totally out of bounds.  But it was alive, living and breathing, an art that had content and meaning that came from outside the art world, far away from the middle class norms, and its energy attracted ever-hungry consumers of cultural juices—dealers and gallery owners.  One of them was Jeffrey Deitch.

And the rest is history.

Good News

The good news about the exhibition is that Deitch has brought together a large number of artists and a large number of examples of “street art” into one viewing space.  Although some of the works of art are more interesting that others, the overall quality is very high, from the orange crush ice cream truck of our very own beloved “Mister Cartoon” to the ironic skateboarding videos of Spike Jonze.  Seeing all the art with the attention it deserves is a two-day job.  I spent most of the day at the museum and took a lunch break at what is probably the only Chinese restaurant in Little Tokyo and still didn’t make it to the second floor.  The average viewer will get an idea of the range and scope of a vital underground world of art making, even if the museum can do little more than present a tiny sliver of an intense and on-going activity.

When Jean-Michel Basquiat hit the art scene at the height of the Age of Greed in the art world, the white art writers, art dealers and the art audience tended to think of him as some kind of unschooled and untamed “primitive,” but today we know better.  Basquiat was an art educated middle class artist who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of African-Americans and who had the temerity to teach his buyers the narrative of people of color.  The fact that he came of the group SAMO explains the fact that his paintings were actually writings, social commentaries that were illustrated.  But Basquiat seemed to be a fairly intuitive painter and created spontaneously.

I had assumed that other street artists were equally spontaneous, but I was wrong, wrong about Basquiat and wrong about street artists.  Most of the street artists escaped the insatiable maw that was the art world during the 1980s, the demand that put Basquiat on an art-making treadmill disguised mass production as “spontaneity.”

That insight came to me when I realized that street artists planned their productions in advance, sketching out their designs, mapping out the colors.  They had a game plan.  They had to be organized.  Painting under duress, they had not time to stop and figure out what might happen next.  Street artists plotted their grandes machines as carefully as the academic artists of the nineteenth century.

STASH invented the “training pad,” or a sketchbook that featured carefully drawn railway cars, drawn from the side, so that the artists could compose the art that would be put up on the train.  Train art must be executed hurriedly and the speed of the train allows any mistakes to simply zoom by.  We owe a great deal to the dedication of Henry Chalfant who documented these rolling museums, packed with art that was soon to be destroyed.  “Art, DAZE wrote in a true Duchampian spirit, “is anything you can get away with.”  In the exhibition catalogue, Lee Quinones (creator of Howard the Duck), spoke of the Fabulous 5 Crew who painted “the first whole-train masterpieces that ran complete—ten cars, painted top to bottom, end to end.”  And yet, somehow the combination of graffiti, street art, train art all came together and was called “The Wild Style,” writing on the move.  And as the training pad below, designed for a German steel train, indicates, street art went global.

Bad News

Street art became an international art form for young artists, paralleling the Documentas and Biannuals for the old people.  The closer street art comes to graffiti and tagging, the closer it remains to social protest.   The more street artists adapt their art to conventional canvases, the further away it moves from it roots.  Through an act of appropriation by the very people against whom it once fought, street art becomes tamed, captive, a toothless form of entertainment.  “Art” became a trap for street art and many of the “real” street artists were famously exploited and used up and spit out by the art world of the eighties.  However, some of the so-called street artists, Basquiat, Scharf, Haring, were artists-in-waiting, exploiting street culture of the East Village, waiting to be noticed by the Big Money Crowd.  And so street art became Street Art and began to engender its own history, from the Times Square Show to the FUN Club to Bischofberger.

For people who want some idea of the chronology of street art or of the cultural differences among the makers or of the various manifestation of outlaw art, this exhibition will not serve you well.  The installation is a deliberate cacophony, mimicking the horror vaccui that is characteristic of street art.  The need of the street artist to cover all available surfaces with graphics is mirrored in the jam-packed walls and floor space in a deliberate refusal to reduce a social performative activity into isolated works of art carefully placed at eye level.  Rap makes only an occasional appearance.  Break dancing? Couldn’t find any.  Streetware? Not present.  Perhaps because he understood that street art was an example of a larger cultural expression, so widespread and so varied, that any traditional installation would be impossible, Deitch limited his exhibition to the visual arts.

The catalogue provides a timeline and a separation of the various cultures that contributed to underground art.  Numerous essays state that the visuals arts and the performing arts and the musical arts—Blondie’s Raptureall intermixed and impacted each other.  But, if intermingling is the case, it is merely stated, not demonstrated through connections except in the catalogue texts.  This book, otherwise an excellent reference, is equally brief on the social and economic factors that are at the heart of street art.  Once again, brief assertive statements are made, but the ugly environment from which these artists emerged is a mere colorful backdrop.

Good News and Bad News

What impressed me most about the art was the level of craft and effort put into the individual paintings by artists who know how to take a utilitarian can of spray paint and transform this tool into a major and important art medium.  There is an intersection between popular boy culture—comic books and graphic novels and video games—with an almost obsessive preoccupation with craft and skill.  The art is marked by patience, dedication, concentration and serious intention.  Street Art is a phenomenon its practitioners believe in enough to make art without guarantees, without any rewards beyond peer approval.

On the east coast the obsession with craft was demanded the materials themselves; on the west coast, the concern with surface was labeled “finish fetish” and came out of the car culture.  And here lies one of my pet peeves with the show—the lack of distinctions that obliterate differences among the artists.  New York does not have a car culture; New York has a train culture, and this very public culture allows artists to, as Los Angeles artist WISK stated, “to crush New York in a second…” The car culture of Los Angeles allowed art, sealed beneath candy flake finishes, to roll through the streets but the authorities took a dim view of such a confrontational display from barrio people.  Although the need for cultural expression comes from the same place, painting trains with Kry-lon is a very different activity from the eighty odd coats it takes turn a “finish” into a “fetish.”  And “heaven” in Los Angeles is not a train yard in Brooklyn.

Just as an airbrush is different from a spray gun, skateboarding culture differs from break dancing and comes from an entirely different cultural impulse and from different locales.  I understand that street artists like to think of both as “performance art,” but, with all due respects, the divergences between a sport and a dance form need further discussion.  Although distinguishing among the many aspects of street culture may be at odds with the intentions of the director, the Geffen is sufficiently large to allow for separations and for examinations of how and why the artistic expressions of the various subcultures diverge and blend.  Somehow it feels wrong to have Mister Cartoon adjacent to a huge installation by twin brothers, Os Gemeos, from Sao Paulo.  Equally disturbing is the near silence on the connection between prison tattoo art and cholo graffiti, although there are many examples of tattoo art offered in the museum.

Of course, there is little for the girl in all of us in this exhibition.  Several female street artists are represented and are written about in the catalogue, but overall the show is all-boy and all male.  Street art comes out of a macho culture that objectifies women and excludes them from as many collective cultural activities as possible.  But that is also a description of the mainstream art world where women are still woefully underrepresented.  To be a street artist when one is a woman is to be doubly courageous.  Miss Van would have to brave a very male-dominated culture—France—and go out into a public sector—the streets, where women are not supposed to go—and engage in a dangerous, clandestine activity that usually takes place at night, in the dark, when women are supposed to be home, otherwise they are assumed to be prostitutes.  Of course, today, Miss Van has evolved into an easel artist who mimics the look of street art.   One can only hope that there will be more Lady Pinks, more Miss Vans, and more Swoons who will follow the example of Jenny Holzer, the original girl street artist.

There are far too many artists who were absent or underrepresented.  In contrast to the large section for Shepherd Fairey, there is not much Banksy. The absence of BLU and JR, the minor presence of INVADER is too bad and these artists are missed.  I could find only one Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf’s main contribution is a truly wonderful car decorated with dinosaurs.  In addition to a rather indifferently painted car, there is a memorial room dedicated to Keith Haring’s subway drawings.  Although the late RAMMELLZEE is well represented, another street art veteran, Fab 5 Freddy, had more part to play in the catalogue than in the exhibition itself. Gone but not forgotten, however, is his immortal ode to Andy Warhol’s soup cans.

I am not sure, either from the exhibition or the catalogue, exactly what the exhibition intends to do—-to present a history of street art or to present examples of different kinds of street art.  If one is going to do an exhibition on street art and exclude Chicano Mural art, then an explanation of some kind is necessary.  While I do not agree with Christopher Knight of The Los Angeles Times that ASCO”s assault on the Los Angeles Museum of Art is an example of street art, mural art is part of the larger tradition of public art in Los Angeles.  Either way, the show falls short: beyond a time line, the actual development of a specific history is not engaged and the collection of artists feels arbitrary. The erased mural by BLU that appeared for twenty-four hours before Deitch ordered its removal was pictured in the catalogue, taking up a two page spread at the back: no explanation, no excuses.

Given the vast scope of Art in the Streets, there is no way the exhibition can please everyone’s expectations. One must take the show at face value; accept it on its own terms, as ambiguous as its intentions are.  There is a faint whiff of classism at the Geffen, just as there was the smell of sexism at “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” as if the white male art world has graciously gathered together all the art of the Other within easy reach and has thrown all available examples into a large space.  As with the now infamous Whitney Biannual of 1993, there is a feeling of “now you’ve had your turn” so we can move on.  I hope the audience takes away something more meaningful from the exhibition: that artists are everywhere, that art is a universal impulse, that no art forms should be shut out or disparaged in a culture that supposedly celebrates freedom of speech, even for corporations.

There is something profound about the ephemeral nature of street art, which was often effaced and erased by hostile authorities.  This acceptance of being struck out and written over is not a theoretical stance, such as that taken by performance artists in the seventies who wanted to eliminate object-based art-making, but an understanding of being in an untenable social position—outside the mainstream.  In the face of such unthinking disrespect and deliberate defacement, there is something tragically fatalistic about street artists who put some much time and effort into a work of art that might or might not be documented, that would almost certainly be destroyed, and that was made for an audience who might or might not appreciate it.

Not authorized as artists, outside the institutional framework of the art world, these young men and women made art because they needed to make art.  They were not doing classroom assignments for a grade, they were making art because they had to; they made art because they needed to.  Innocent of academic aesthetic ideas and free of theories of what “art” is, the street artists used every available and unavailable surface to make art about their immediate cultures, labeled “sub” because their lives took place off stage.  In some ways, street art is the purest form of art making—art-for-art’s sake—whether you want it or not.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger






Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010)


When on that day in 1988 he did not wake up, Jean-Michel Basquiat joined the pantheon of artists who died young and thus passed into legend.  Although there is a fairly definitive biography by Phoebe Hoban, the beautiful young man that was Basquiat remains a mythic figure and the image of a doomed artist looms over the truth of his life.  Despite its title, this film, based on a short interview Tamara Davis did with Basquiat,  does nothing to shed light on the artist.  Instead, twenty years later,  it continues the hagiography and the white washing of a black artist in this tale told mainly by white people.  For the cynics, Basquiat was a “head on a pole,” a warning sign to any minority brash enough to attempt to breech the all white walls of the art world.  This film does nothing to discredit the notion that Basquiat was an exception to the all-white rule in New York’s art institutions.

The problems with this documentary begin with the title itself.  “The Radiant Child” comes from a 1981 article written for Artforum by Rene Ricard (who does not appear) and the title referred, not to Basquiat, but to a famous drawing by the late street artist, Keith Haring.  Basquiat was a peripheral player in the article, which focused on Haring; and yet, the signifier has somehow floated over to fix itself on Basquiat.  To attach the term “child” to this artist is racist on the face of it and reflects the white art world attitude towards the young black man.  The chic SoHo crowd thought of Basquiat as a “wild” “primitive,” not because he was a street artist, but because he was a young black man in dreds.  To label him as a “child,” radiant or not, is close to calling him “boy.”  During his entire career, Basquiat was raced and marked.

The implication of this linguistic marginalization is that Basquiat was an innocent child adrift in a smart and savvy art world, which ate him up and consumed his art for fun and profit. But the record indicates that Basquiat was a shrewd observer of the SoHo scene, in which he had been operating for years as the street poet, “Samo.”  Like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf (both white men), Basquiat positioned himself and his work in the midst of a burgeoning East Village SoHo scene that combined art and music.  It was the last seventies and early eighties and a new generation had drifted into town.  Cindy Sherman and Pat Benetar and Ross Bleckner and Robert Mapplethorpe and Madonna all became part of the new vibe. Beyond the exchange of ideas and innovation that could take place among the artists in such an atmosphere, there were the up and coming galleries and the gradual gentrification of the loft district.  New artists, new galleries, new ideas and new opportunities—Basquiat was smart enough to know where to place himself.  This artist was never an outsider artist; he was always an insider artist.

There is a naïveté to this movie towards a very sophisticated and complex subject.  Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child assumes an outmoded myth of the artist as genius who is “discovered” and finds sudden fame.  This myth which, destroyed the artist, badly needs to be deconstructed.  Basquiat was smart and ambitious and focused on making a name and a career for himself.  Built around a short interview with Basquiat done by the filmmaker, this documentary vividly portrays another asset that the artist was well aware he possessed.  Besides being smart and well educated, Basquiat, who was from a middle class family, was a beautiful young man.  “Radiantly” good looking, he attracted the admiration and support of both men and women.  If this film has any merits, it is that it captures the physical appeal that allowed the artist to stand out among the contenders in the art world. The loving, lingering close-ups of the obviously smitten cameraperson show the artist in the last moments before he began to deteriorate from drug use. The same qualities that made people want to take care of him were the precise qualities that made people want to use him.  His career became a run away train, fueled by the desire to make as much money as possible before the ride was over.  But there is nothing unique about Basquiat’s story.   We here in Los Angeles see it played out again and again—-sudden fame, sudden flame.

The tragic arc of the career of Jean-Michel Basquiat parallels that Vincent van Gogh or of Jackson Pollock, other doomed and damned artists.  But unlike van Gogh or Pollock, Basquiat became wealthy in an unprecedented art market, and, after his death, his estate passed to his father who also profited from owning art that was now iconic.  Although Andy Warhol developed the notion of the artist-as-celebrity, Warhol was an older and more seasoned player whose detached cynicism protected him from the consequences of fame.  Basquiat was arguably one of the first Hollywood-like figures in the New York art world.  If the artist lacked the armor, the art world lacked the resources to deal with his sudden ascendency.  A review of his career reveals that no one was responsible.  No one was in charge.  The sudden and massive influx of money and the overwhelming demands on Basquiat’s time and talents would have destroyed any young artist.

Although Basquiat has been dead for over twenty years, there is no context or perspective from Davis.  The art world he served was a hypermarket of frenzied buying and spending, one of the epicenters of greed during the Eighties, one of the last unregulated laissez-faire capital markets in the world. But this art world crashed like an over-priced stock, shattering forever the fiction that art and money were separate enterprises.  Careers rose and fell and there were numerous casualties, from David Salle to Robert Longo.  No art historians or art critics appear in Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child to discuss what was a very distorted era in the art world that made and destroyed many of its inhabitants.  Some artists survived and went on to distinguished careers: Cindy Sherman became a major figure in postmodern art and Julian Schnabel became a well-regarded filmmaker. Although there is some discussion of the content of Basquiat’s art, the sheer novelty of a black male artist painting black history, featuring black male protagonists for white patrons remains ripe for a more considered discourse.

Basuqiat’s paintings were confrontational, political, and critical of the white world, which used and discriminated against black men (and black women).  The film mentions that Basquiat identified with Charlie Parker, a black entertainer for an audience of whites,  suggesting that he was well aware of what was being done to him.  The writing on the canvas walls of Basquiat’s large scale paintings reinforce his understanding of his role as artistic entertainer to privileged white audiences, much like the boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson.  The distinguishing feature of Basquiat’s work is that he was essentially a writer who put his literature onto canvas using a brush instead of a spray can or pen.  As a writer, as a street artist, Basquiat was much closer to Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger.  Like these feminist artists, he was a critic of the dominant society.  And like these installation artists, he was able to maintain the balance between criticizing the very people who supported his art and selling his art to the establishment.  There is an unstated but present subtext that Basquiat was somehow a “natural” painter, who never had to attend art school.   This “noble savage” narrative uses racism to elide just how brilliantly and fluently Basquiat took up the paintbrush and how completely he made the transition from spray painting walls to painting canvases.  Although it is easy to look at his expressionistic style, the obvious attraction for his patrons, his activist messages come across loud and clear for all who, in this conservative era, would listen.  At a time when affirmative action was being halted, Basquiat was literally one of the most powerful and outspoken black voices in America, judging white people on their actions towards people of color.

Unfortunately, the film does not inform the viewer as to just how tragic his young life was.  One deplores the lost opportunities and the missed chances over years to help Basquiat, and it continues to be astounding that no one intervened with his addiction until it was too late.  His drug problems, which were long standing, are treated as a late development.  His numerous love affairs are omitted, and only two of his former lovers appear on camera.  His dealers, with the exceptions of Larry Gagosian and Mary Boone, did come on camera but gloss over the fact that Basquiat was a very high maintenance artist and never mention the vast sums of money he made for them. Some artists speak of him on camera, Julian Schnabel who made a very fine movie about the artist, Basquiat, provides commentary.  It is worth noting that Schnabel’s film is more hard-hitting and realistic than jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. Basquiat’s fellow street artists, Fab5Freddy, Kenny Scharf, and some of his earlier associates, such as Al Diaz become voices, which merely reiterate the legend and reinforce the myth.

But the film ends with telling us little we do not already know and the Hoban biography remains the best account of a life fully but badly lived. Basquiat may have been “a head on a pole,” but he paved the way for other artists of color, from Glen Ligon to Kara Walker.  Watching the film and seeing the recovered interview with Basquiat, I was reminded of last year’s exhibition at Occidental College of photographs taken of one of their more famous students, Barack Obama.  Like this documentary film, the photographs were taken by a young woman; and like Davis’s film, the photographs were put away and forgotten.  There is a similarity of youth and promise shining out the photographs of Obama, but there is one thing missing—-the vulnerability of Basquiat.  Obama came across as cool and self-confident and totally in command of his own life.  So what happened to Jean-Michel Basquiat?  Simply put, once he entered into the precincts of the art world, he lost control of his life.  Hopefully, his art works can be removed from the dramatic story line of the doomed genius artist and will receive a hardheaded assessment as the social critique they were.  This film is nostalgic and elegiac but completely without insight.   Too bad.

If he were alive today, Jean-Michel Basquiat would be a year older than President Barack Obama.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)


This year has brought two very good films on the art world, first, The Art of the Steal about the Barnes Collections (reviewed on this site) and, now, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The title refers to the museum blockbuster, which routes the audience through a maze of galleries so that they can “exit through the gift shop.”  Here, one can buy tee shirts with art works printed on the front, famed posters of the art in the exhibition, mugs with the paintings wrapped around, note cards, post cards, sometimes backpacks and scarves, even jewelry—all copies of work of art.   There is no end of the ways we can all own works of art, albeit in a reproduced form.  Exit through the Gift Shop is a commentary on the art world, with the museum being guilty of money changing in the temple with the auction houses as accomplices.  By inference, the film presents the street artists as being the last purists.

Outlaws, who are the ultimate “outsider” artists, literally working outside, invading the streets and posting art by night, uphold the lost honor of the myth of the artist. The artist, the true artist, according to Bruce Nauman, speaking in neon, “helps the world by revealing mystic truths.”    He or she works for the common good, without hope of money or fame, willing to die for art.  The real truth of the “true artist” is that s/he is a small business owner, producing a luxury commodity for a small group of consumers.  The work is made on spec, as it were, and the reward is more fame and less fortune.  Only a chosen few are ever noticed in this potlatch culture of inverted economics.  The hero street artists of this film, Banksy and Shepard Fairey, are master strategists who have used the “rules” of the art world to gain recognition, gangster style.  Primal insurrectionaries, they turned the art game into a guerilla war.

On the surface the documentary, narrated with careful solemnity by Rhys Ifans, is a record of one man’s obsession with the camera, directed towards stealthy street artists.  But the mere employment of Ifans immediately tells the viewer that the presence of this supporting player, who chewed the scenery in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is a sign of sarcasm.  A tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot, the movie is to be a witty one.  At the heart of the absurdity, lurking at the fringes of the art world, is an unlikely knight-errant, or more precisely the squire of the art warriors, Thierry Guetta.   Guetta is a French expat, living in Los Angeles with his long-suffering wife.  He is the classic manic, filming compulsively with no end in sight, pointing his camera at the artists who come out at night.

Street art has been around for decades.  One can be very erudite and point backwards in time to tympanums over cathedral doors or go all multicultural and mention Diego Rivera or the WPA or the murals in Chicano neighborhoods, but a more precise analogy might be the New York street artists, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the lone survivor, Kenny Scharf.  During the golden age of Graffiti Art, they spray painted the streets and subway corridors in the SoHo neighborhood where the chic art galleries were located.  Well educated and ambitious, they were the sophisticated counterparts of lower order street artists, such as Fab Five Freddy, and those who spray-painted New York subway cars with images of Andy Warhol soup cans.  To some their work was art and these artists were duly and quickly absorbed into the mainstream and appropriated by Mary Boone.  To others, graffiti was simply graffiti and, like broken windows in a building, was symptomatic of crime to come.  Graffiti was vandalism, pure and simple.

Whether or not one agrees with either position, the situation of the artists who work the streets rather than the galleries is that of someone operating outside the law.  Although the streets are supposedly “public” and belong to us all—-after all we paid for them—-the public spaces are, in fact, private and patrolled.  Property developers and private entrepreneurs own the buildings.  The police control the streets.  No unauthorized signage is allowed.  The great street muralist, Kent Twitchell, has tales to tell of the ruination of his works of art at the hands of property owners.  For the artist with a taste for adventure, the streets are a short cut to fame.  Anyone can take the safe route, the gallery system, but there, in these white cubes, control, as stringent as that practiced by the police, awaits.  The real freedom is not in the art schools or in the studios; it is out in the open, late at night, in the dark, on the fly.

Thierry Guetta began his career as a documentarian of street artists, who keep their identities secret and use street names.  He was introduced to the underground world of art makers through his cousin, the artist named, “Space Invader,” after a video game. “Space Invader” makes small designs from Rubik’s cubes and pastes them to the odd corners of Paris.  Reminiscent of the environmental artist, Charles Simonds, in the 1970s, the street artists leave works of art, some large and some small, in odd, hard-to-reach spaces.  Simonds, a recognized fine artist, would leave tiny earthen “cities” tucked away, like treasures, for the pedestrian to stumble across.  All of these works were, of course, carefully documented with an eye to posterity.  The street artists, who worked alone and who knew each other through a network of subterranean communication and silent respect, had no one to record their methods or their art until Thierry came along twenty years ago.

Thanks to the filmmaker, we have hundreds of hours of film, saving the secret practices and the ephemeral art from oblivion.  But Thierry, being manic and undirected, was never able to get beyond compulsive acts to actually take all of his material and create a coherent shape.  He got sidetracked, thanks to a causal suggestion by Banksy, and became an “artist,” of sorts.  As Mr. Brainwash, he began plastering the walls of Los Angeles with a soon-to-be iconic image of himself with sunglasses and a camera.  Guetta went beyond Photo-shopping a photograph and began “finding” available images, taken from art books and art magazines.  The result was a manic compulsive obsessive hoarder’s dream of an exhibition in 2008, “Life is Beautiful.”  In the former CBS Studios, MBW presented a cacophony of every known work of art, seized by Guetta and imprinted with his idea of what an “assisted Readymade” might be.   If he even knew who Duchamp was, that is.  The collectors, who, as their name might suggest, collect, began to acquire his “art,” because that is their nature: they are acquisitive.  Guetta certainly provided plenty of opportunities for the acquirers to acquire.  Remember, this is the last year before the Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods of Wall Street and every one was under the illusion they had money.

From a seller of used clothes to a documentary filmmaker to an art world phe-nom, the trajectory of Thierry Guetta seems to be the story told here, with Banksy and Fairey as supporting characters.  But if that is all the film is about, the art lover will be in despair and the art skeptic will say, “I told you so.”  The offended reaction of Banksy and Fairey in the end gives us a clue that the story of Thierry Guetta is about more than the lunacy of the art world and a person one reviewer described as the “village idiot.”  The credit for this film belongs to Tom Fulford and Chris King, who are listed as editors and constructed all those incoherent hours of footage into a story of sorts.  The movie is less about any particular artist, even Banksy, who is listed as the “director,” and more about the century old question: what is art?  Guetta is the nightmare of aestheticians and art critics come true.  He is an ultra appropriator, ripping off everything and everyone.  How hard is it to be an artist if originality is no longer necessary?  All you need to do is expose yourself…like a dirty old man in a raincoat.

For the art critic of the Sixties, the question, what is art? was a crisis.  Arthur Danto faced this Waterloo at the Stable Gallery in 1964. The occasion was an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s installation art, all replicas of objects both low and commercial.  It was said that Eleanor Ward hid in her office during the opening.  As he stared at the replicas of stacked boxes of Kellogg’s cereals, Danto pondered the meaning and definition of art.  What was to distinguish between the actual cardboard boxes of Kellogg’s products discarded and tossed behind the grocery store and Warhol’s screen-printed wooden boxes?  Eventually incorporating obvious answers such as “the artist’s intent” and “the maker’s ideas,” Danto and another aesthetician, George Dickie, proposed the now famous “Institutional Theory of Art.”  An object, or a candidate for “art,” becomes designated as “art,” once it has gone through a process of legitimation, moving though one Station of the Art World after the other.  To the generation of the Abstract Expressionists, the artist was Christ; for the generation of Andy Warhol, the artist was a self-promoter.  Warhol is the hero and role model for all street artists, not because he sold himself, but because he appropriated the look and feel of popular imagery and elevated it to “art” through sheer chutzpa.

By the time of Basquiat, Postmodernism had ended that mystic notion of “origin” and “genius,” and admitted that all art had to come from somewhere else.  But acts of appropriation, gestures of quotation, performances of borrowing were the activities of very sophisticated, art school educated, theory permeated artists.  They knew what they were doing and why.  But that was decades ago.  Thirty years after the debut of Jeff Koons, we are confronted with a truly naïve and unschooled artist, Thierry Guetta. Guetta sees without knowing why, takes without understanding how, imitates with the innocent eye of a child.  He is a true “primitive,” a modern day Henri Rousseau, who knows just enough to be dangerous to others.   All he knows is that “Life is Beautiful.” He has probably never heard of Roberto Benigni.

To the trained eye, Banksy is an educated artist who has shrewdly found his place in the streets of the big cities of the world, especially London.  He learned from Basquiat.  A true “outsider artist” does not make art “outside” the art world, in a place such as Des Moines or Birmingham, for example.  You must place your art, in London or Paris or New York or Berlin, otherwise the art is like a tree in a forest empty of humans.  It will fall, making no sound.  Like Banksy, Shepard Fairey followed the strategy of maximum visibility.  The graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design looks and acts like a nice frat boy and now lives and works in Los Angeles. A clean-cut family man, he became well known for his ubiquitous “Obey” posters of Andre the Giant and famous or infamous for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster.  Although we know more about Fairey than Banksy, both artists hide in plain sight.  And even better, we can’t see Banksy beneath the dark and shadowed hoodie.  His visible invisibility makes him even more sought after.

Fairey and Bansky and the other street artists filmed by Guetta are genuine guerillas, striking by night and fleeing the scene.  By morning light their work will be “discovered” and by the end of the day scrubbed out of existence, if possible.  But like all guerillas, these artists have to be well financed.  The documentary clearly demonstrates that even guerilla art is not cheap.  There is much more to their art making process than that of Basquiat, who used a can of spray paint, and Haring, who used white chalk on black paper.  The new generation of street artists are more like Renaissance mural artists, complete with the workshops and assistants.  We see preliminary sketches and cartoons, the enlarged Xerox prints, made in pieces.  Some of the street art comes from stencils and we watch Banksy carefully cutting out an elaborate web of cardboard components.  Other images are prints on a grand scale, applied with long brushes like huge rolls of wallpaper.  All of this costs money.  Someone is funding the enterprises of these highly successful artists and along the way smart art dealers made a smart investment.

But the question still remains, is Thierry Guetta an artist?  From the perspective of the Institutional Theory of Art, he is.  He has been through an apprenticeship and has earned his place.  Guetta is the true result of the Institutional Theory and perhaps the reason why the Theory has been so controversial and debated for forty years.  But that does not answer the real question: is he making art?  The short answer is No.  The long answer is No Way.  Therry Guetta takes art; he does not make art.  This statement is not intended to be a critique or a criticism.  I am not condemning the man.  I am simply describing how he works.  Guetta is what Walter Benjamin would call a “cultural producer,” although today, in the time of post-Post-modernism, we might call him a “cultural re-producer.”  But he is so far removed from any precise source, we cannot even dignify his practice as a type of simulacra.  What lies beyond repetition? beyond replication?  Thierry Guetta.  Both Banksy and Fairey have come to look askance upon their former companion.  By dismissing Guetta as a faux artist, they validate themselves as authentic artists.  If this film demonstrates anything, it is that something we sense as “real” art actually exits.  Whether or not we can explain art, we recognize it and we know when and what it is not.  Like pornography.

That said there is nothing wrong with what Thierry Guetta is doing and he has a place in the art world.  He grasped the basic psychology of what Banksy and Fairey were doing: they were muscling their way into the world of visual culture through the use of signature styles and trademark imagery.  Their tactics were simple: visuality and repetition.  Despite the apparently public nature of their work, which could be “owned” by all, their art was the ultimate “unobtainium” for a long time.  They would give their art; the authorities would take it away.  Part of the thrill was the sheer danger of the act.  Guetta filmed street artists running from the law as if they were playing games of parquet. The sheer athleticism of the artists and their audacity made them a breed apart—outlaw gangsters always ready to break and run. The street artists were like cultural Robin Hoods: they robbed the landlords to give to the poor.  The art could be seen but not for long.  It could not be owned nor possessed.  The stencils and the posters were placed just out of reach.  The inaccessibility of the accessible created desire. That is the lesson that Thierry Guetta, who gave his art in excess, did not comprehend. He tried to create art through the Gift Shop.  But it is Desire that creates art.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger