Liberals have some sort of weird fascination with Banksy, the pseudonymous English graffiti “artist.” I suppose the fact that he’s such a shadowy figure is part of it. He’s got a certain mystique. And I suppose the fact that he’s at least nominally socially transgressive warms the cockles of their hearts as well. There’s nothing contemporary liberals love more than pretending that it’s still the sixties (whether they were alive in the sixties or not) and that they’re still blowing minds and shocking the bourgeoisie establishment and standing up to The Man. (This is another facet of that self-deluding psychodrama that we covered on Social Matter a couple weeks ago.) So the ongoing saga of a rogue street artist waging ideological guerrilla warfare against corporate fat cats is a surefire way to capture their interest. In actual fact, though, a lot of Banksy’s material is gimmicky. It’s standard dormroom Marxist stoner type stuff aimed at the lowest hanging fruits of social critique. Pretty insipid and rarely if ever at odds even the most milquetoast mainstream progressive thought.
That’s not to say he never comes up with a zinger, however, or an interesting “piece.” In fact, I remember watching a documentary about him a while back. It was called Exit Through the Gift Shop. At the time, I thought he came off rather well. He seemed smart, competent, wryly funny. He definitely had any eye for, if nothing else, an arresting image that would resonate with his intended audience (even if the philosophies that he was pushing and that they were buying seem a little sophomoric under closer scrutiny.) There was a degree of talent there, which is something you couldn’t say for the other central figure of the film: Mr. Brainwash.
Exit Through the Gift Shop ends up revolving around Mr. Brainwash’s rise to fame in the art world. Evidently Brainwash got involved in the graffiti scene as a fanboy. He liked to follow guys around as they defaced property in new and interesting ways, and he videotaped a lot of their outings so that a record of their edginess would be preserved for all posterity. At any rate, eventually he got into the actual street artistry himself. The difference between him and Banksy, though, is that Brainwash is quite clearly dumb as a box of rocks. Uncomprehending. All of his “installments” are so obviously derivative of Banksy or a couple of the other graffiti scenesters that you have to assume he doesn’t have a functioning sense of shame, either. Here’s a representative piece. Visionary stuff. Nevertheless, the documentary had scenes from some of his exhibitions, and his reception in art circles seemed just fine. Upper-crust Californians wandered around them yammering about how cool and profound everything was and shelling out cash. According to Wikipedia, he’s had other exhibitions in New York and London. He’s sold pieces for upwards of $100,000. Brazen hack or not, he’s successful.
There’s a lot of speculation online about whether or not the whole documentary and the Mr. Brainwash character himself are yet another one of Banksy’s elaborate jokes. Watch it yourself if you want to. I couldn’t say one way or another. What I will say is that the plot of the movie strikes me as the history of modern art in miniature. It’s a cautionary tale about what when you set a low aesthetic bar for your medium in order to maximize your ability to make “statements” through it.
Like I said, Banksy comes off as a clever guy, and he could probably make it in a vocation other than cheap ideological hackwork. But that’s where he chose to make his stand. That’s the niche he chose to carve out: stenciling stuff onto the sides of buildings, a niche that chronically underutilizes any natural artistic talent he might have. That niche takes no skill, and it shouldn’t come as a suprise, then, when it starts to attract people who never had talent to begin with, who are doing the hackwork without the vision or even the sense of ironic detachment that their forebears had.
For my money, and I’m no art historian, that’s the cycle that got started around the turn of the twentieth century, when a bunch of artsy types in France and Italy started getting more interested in writing manifestos and épater le bourgeois than in producing works of standalone artistic merit. Many of the originators of these avant garde movements, many of their first or second generations, were trained and competent artists in their own right. They had the chops. But if your scene treats a signed toilet as having some profound critical merit, then your scene is (please forgive me for this) going to start getting clogged up with a bunch of shit work. Whatever cultural capital those artistic forefathers had—in the form of education, training, familiarity with the traditions and methods of their given craft—is going to atrophy away. There are examples of this generational decay wherever artists begin to emphasize the propagation of the message over the perfection of the medium. Guernica might not be your cup of tea, but it’s leagues better than the kind of “abstract art” you find hanging in coffee shops today. By the same token, I don’t think Frida Kahlo quite the genius she’s billed as, but she’s still several rungs higher than used menstrual pads on the grand hierarchy of feminist art. Most any MFA program in the country will evidence this decay. Since modern artists began conceiving of themselves primarily as social commentators, they ceased to become artists. Because ultimately it doesn’t take a lot of aesthetic sophistication to make that sort of commentary. Take it from me. I’m producing this social commentary right now in cargo shorts and sneakers.
My guess is that the grandest aesthetics emerge organically from the grandest civilizations, from societies where there’s some sort of shared vision for what the good life looks like and where there’s stability enough for artisans to realize that vision in relative peace. I have no prescription for how to achieve such a civilization, though, or any deep insight into that process. That’s what the other “Aesthetics Week” entries were for. I just wanted to poke a little fun at Banksy, who tells aging Boomers what they want to hear and thus enjoys a reputation that far exceeds his modest talents, and I wanted point out what I take to be a pretty common cycle in the world of modern art. One generation fritters away its cultural capital on cheap gimmicky art that’s beneath them, and soon enough they are replaced by successive generations of cheap gimmicky artists who are capable of nothing higher.