Street Art Wisdom

Last night I watched “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and couldn’t sleep.

The film is a documentary about Terry, a Frenchman, who videotapes everything. By happenstance he met some street artists and started filming them for a documentary (that he never really intended to put together). Terry filmed some of the best of the best street artists including Shepard Fairey (the originator of the Obama “Change” poster) and Banksy.

After years of filming with nothing to show for it, Banksy gave Terry a mission to make the film so that here-today-gone-tomorrow street art could be understood and documented. Terry did as he was told and made an un-watchable film. Banksy told Terry to forget filmmaking to put on his own small art show.

Terry went overboard, he put on one of the biggest independent art shows in the closed-down CBS building in Los Angeles. Yes, thousands of people attended. Yes, Terry did $1million in sales. BUT at what cost?

Terry asked Shepard Fairey and Banksy for a some promo help. Shepard added the press release to his website, Banksy gave a quote. Terry used this to build his promo campaign by putting up huge banners of Banky’s quote.

Here is where the movie got me thinking. Yes, Terry helped street artists put up their art in the middle of the night. Yes, Terry helped find the best walls in Los Angeles. Yes, Terry did his own street art.

But the street art that Terry did was of himself. He had a friend sketch out a picture of himself holding a camera. Terry didn’t really create it. The show Terry put on was a near copy of Warhol and Banksy. Most of the work were celebrities with new photoshopped images. Like Elvis with a toy gun instead of a guitar. Obama with Marilyn Monroe hair al-la Warhol’s Monroe, a Campbell’s soup label on a can of spray paint.

Banksy, who is in the film under the shadows, didn’t really know how to feel about Terry’s success – and that leads me to wonder about it too.

The Terry depicted in the film is a good guy, he really seems to mean well. He wants to be creative, he wants to be around creative people but when he steps up to create his own art it’s sub-par. And that should be the end of it, but because of his association with major players, he’s accepted and praised.

The hype machine scares me. Hype can create the illusion that a turd is a diamond and many of us buy into it. Yes, art is subjective; what someone people love, other’s find trash but you can’t separate the hype from the work. Once you relate yourself in the mind of the customer that you are in the same vein as [insert great name here] then they think, I like that work, I’ll check out this new person. Or in Terry’s case I’m sure many people were thinking, I love Banksy but I can’t afford his work so I’ll get one of this guys and maybe he’ll be as popular as Banksy one day.

So Terry found success, I believe, only from the promotional hype machine he created. The foundation of that machine was on the heels of his friends – who were real artists and didn’t know what work Terry would create.

Is that fair?

Banksy talks about how there is the unwritten rule in artistry of schooling, honing your craft, exploring new ideas…

But Terry wasn’t schooled, he didn’t worry about honing his craft he just thought anyone could do it and so why not him.

Here is where my brain goes in two directions. I admire people who just do something creative. I love seeing movies and reading stories that is the first-out-of-the gate. There is a bravery and a hope that they are just genius from the start. I really do want people to just do it, don’t talk about being an artist, just be an artist.

But then I watch or read first-time work and I see the pitfalls of a newbie. There is more to throwing paint on a canvas or words on paper, there are things you learn from schooling, mentorships, and taking the time to hone your craft. But someone people love the short cut – and why not? It’s a short cut to be closer to a paycheck.

I really want to answer the “Is it fair” questions so I’m going to put myself in a pretend scenario. Let’s say Charlie Chaplin sees my work (this won’t happen because he’s dead, hence the example) and he says something to the fact “You are continuing the Chaplin legacy.” That would be a huge personal boost and part of me would really want to put that on every press release to build hype. But is that fair? If I did that I’d be saying I’m as good as Charlie Chaplin and I’m not. I’d be riding on the bootstraps of the person who is an icon in the film industry and I have nothing by hype to ride that out. I don’t have the experience that Charlie Chaplin had, I don’t have the ingenuity that Charlie had. Using a quote like that would almost be an insult to the Charlie Chaplin legacy.

And that’s why I think what Terry did wasn’t fair. He rode the wave of the street art movement on the backs of his friends instead of earning it himself like Banksy and Fairey did.

See more of Fairey’s work on Artsy

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One thought on “Street Art Wisdom

  1. terry reilly says:

    interesting take Kate. it made me think of andy wharhol, who i never considered to be much of an artist. sadly, even some artists get caught up in the hype-marketing machine.

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