Branding exercise: Banksy's film Exit Through the Gift Shop premiered at the Los Angeles Theatre in April this year.
FRAZER HARRISON / GETTY IMAGES
The Melbourne Art Fair is upon us once again, chock-full of stalls wanting to flog us their wares. For anyone with even a passing interest in art, the fairs are great; so much stuff packed into the one spot, so much to see.
Commercial art fairs tend to be quite different affairs from state-sponsored ones such as the Biennale of Sydney that’s just ending. The necessity of generating sales to keep the commercial fairs going means the work they display tends to be more user-friendly, an easier fit with a buyer’s home décor.
Much of it seems to aspire to being little more than decorous furnishing. Depending on taste, this can apply equally to the most severe “conceptual” art as to the busiest floral still life. In the end, it’s all stuff to be bought and sold and given a value and validation in the marketplace.
Quite a few artists resist the seductions of the commercial art scene. In some cases they lack the series of elephant stamps that imply competence and an education in the craft, such as a BA or master’s in fine art.
Many are disillusioned by the process of approaching and being rejected by gallery operators. Others, armed with cans of spray paint, are just plain stroppy, addressing their audience directly by commandeering wall space in the public domain. Whatever the reason, there has been extraordinary growth and development in graffiti and related street art.
In the past 30 years graffiti has migrated from the walls enclosing the galleries, auction houses and collectors’ condominiums to the walls inside.
One of the first artists to make this leap was the young Jean Michel Basquiat, whose brief, stellar career was snuffed out by his fatal drug addiction. The story of the gifted but doomed artist is a staple of cinema, making the 1996 movie Basquiat virtually inevitable.
The biopic was made by his friend and fellow painter Julian Schnabel, who in recent
years has turned his hand to filmmaking. A new film that has been playing in limited release purports to tell the story of someone whose creative journey has taken him in the opposite direction to that of Schnabel, from filmmaker – of sorts – to collected artist. It’s called Exit Through the Gift Shop, and it’s been amusing and confounding audiences. Some take the story at face value: the improbable arrival on the art scene of one Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles. We see his evolution from being a hanger-on to various street artists, to collaborator with the likes of Shepard Fairey and Banksy, to having a mega show on his own in his new-found persona, MBW – Mr Brainwash. The phenomenally successful British street artist Banksy is credited with directing the film; most commentators view it as a satire, a “mockumentary”.
It raises all sorts of questions for artists, curators, the general public and even collectors: What is the purpose of art? In the age of YouTube, what constitutes success?
Is it being collected, or making money, or exposure on the web? When the purpose of a form of art practice is to be subversive, what happens when it is taken into the fold of “the establishment”? Is there a point where the notion of subversion becomes redundant, as artists cannibalise each others’ themes and styles?
In recent times, personnel management and job-recruitment experts have urged job aspirants to work on marketing themselves, to develop themselves as a brand. Artists know that this has been an essential part of their practice since Phidias carved the deities on the Parthenon. In this age of very different gods, museums are our new temples. And as we shop at the fair, Banksy and friends pose the question: is this the product of a vocation, or just product? /
Melbourne Art fair 2010, August 4-8.