Oscar Watch: Banksy Blows It
This week, Banksy dropped 100 points on the Consumer Coolness Index. He can afford to. A peerless figure in the world of street art, the pixel-faced, voice-masked but audibly working-class Brit evolved from street-corner tagger to the world-class conceptual artist who stenciled “cut-here” lines across the security wall of Gaza’s West Bank. He also created a small fortune of British pound notes with Princess Di’s face replacing the Queen’s, works that ended up getting passed as actual currency, raising Banksy’s criminal profile from petty vandal to felony forger. This is the playing field of Bansky, who went on to conceive, construct, and install several life-sized, orange jump-suited figures evoking uncharged Guantanamo Bay detainees, during peak hours, inDisneyland. This man can lose 100 Cool points and be 10,000 points ahead of us all.
But boy, did he lose them this week. The site of his latest street art? The streets of West Hollywood. Its intent? To get his debut feature film Exit Through the Gift Shop an Oscar for Best Documentary. In one work, a signature Banksy rat asks via speech bubble, “I’m out of bed and dressed, what more do you want?” In another, a golden statuette stands cast in the form of the hoodie-veiled artist. Somebody remind me: how are these not by Harvey Weinstein?
Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating film whose distribution and acclaim compiled with Banksy’s other work have clearly made its director rich, famous, and free to walk the streets—an un-improvable kind of success. Banksy owes a lot of it to the film, which provides the most comprehensive portrait of his, Shepard Fairey’s, and other street artists’ work as it evolved over the last decade.
But Gift Shop is most effective as a poisoned-pen letter to the art world, exposing the sausage factory that produced its recent cause-celebre, Thierry Guetta. In a flailing attempt at a street-artist doc that was commandeered by its star subject, Gift Shop reveals the would-be director, a French expat self-tagged Mister Brainwash, to be a witless, delusional scenester and remorseless branding machine who—largely thanks to a politely ambivalent blurb he requested from Banksy, blown up to poster size, and posted throughout Los Angeles—went from amateur videographer to art-world giant with just one show of preposterously inane, out-sourced “bricolage.”
A sub-Kinko’s reiteration of Warhol’s Elvis and a Canal-Street knock-off of Basquiat require dot-com-bubble-sized hype to even qualify as art. Bansky and co. generated it, the art world bought it, and Gift Shop plays as a feature-length episode of Punk’d on an entire generation of herd-like cultural “curators.”
In Guetta, Bansky found a real-live Chauncey Gardiner, the simpleton protagonist of Being There, whose banal observations on gardening get misread by wealthy benefactors as brilliant allegories on the global economy. For celebrating those who tag, doodle, and create outside the matrix of such patrons, Gift Shop may even deserve to beat out the ballsier and more meaningful war film Restrepo for Best Documentary of the Year.
But this is precisely the kind of accolade Gift Shop holds in contempt. Why, then, would its director even want it, never mind create new work soley to seek official recognition from an industry cabal that tosses a statuette to any MPAA-approved star who feigns mental illness or retardation? Clearly, there are benefits to winning an Oscar—or rather, one benefit: a quadrupled asking-price—but artistically, there are none. To put it bluntly, when art that re-tasks marketing gets re-tasked back again, it is, by definition, not art.
One blogger reported a “subversive smile” at seeing the culture-jamming billboards in West Hollywood, which started residents warring over ownership of the suddenly high-priced objets. Both kneejerk responses presume a few things, one of them being that the work is actually Banksy’s. I’m not so sure. The director of the film may or may not have created these murals, but Banksy sure as hell didn’t. He couldn’t have. A faceless individual known only by tag, style, wit, and meaning disappears if the work lacks any of these. And for this media cycle, Banksy doesn’t exist.
That is, unless this stunt is aimed at enabling some truly provocative act at the awards ceremony, whose organizers may or may not be banned from wearing a mask. In which case I take back all of the above.