When Street Art Is Neither

>Street Artists: The Complete Guide is an audacious title for a book, especially one that is 150-odd (as opposed to infinity) pages long. Maybe it's the limitations of print, maybe it's the title, but if street art, as its advocates claim, is this vibrant, democratic, decentralized form, then the idea of cataloging it any definitive way seems a bit strange. And the recent Banksy film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is a brilliant example of this.

I've never quite grasped the difference between graffiti and street art in any practical sense—it seems a fairly arbitrary distinction that sometimes (probably unintentionally) obscures the former's history. The recent spat between the anonymous street art star Banksy and the slightly less anonymous old school graffiti legend Robbo helped index these differences—there's a compelling take on this rift @ Juxtapoz, the gist being that no surface (or art form) is sacred, regardless of who got there first.

While this might all seem a bit obscure and internecine, I think this split suggests a lot about our relationship to art and its uses, pop culture, and markets (which, I guess, might also seem a quaint, obscure concern...). The street art boom of the past ten years or so re-stages graffiti's early 1980s crossover to the gallery scene, only with greater chances for sustained success and less of an emphasis on style. After all, nobody back in the day could have imagined the range of goods (or political influence) offered by Shepard Fairey. (Not everyone goes down this path—check out this great slideshow by Marc and Sara Schiller of all-for-the-love street art site Wooster Collective.)

But these two worlds—one steadfastly history-obsessed and old school, the other gleefully and totally anarchic—do share something in common: a vague, unwritten, you-either-get-it-or-you-don't code of conduct. There's an ethics to defacing (or, as Tony Shafrazi said about his Guernica graffito, "completing") public space—especially if you stand a chance of profiting from it.

Which is why Banksy has become such a divisive figure. Banksy has done some astounding and provocative work in the past, like the Guantanamo inmate at Disneyland, the paintings he glued to the walls of the Tate and this excellent comment on global warming. But his success, particularly among collectors, has also opened him up to a tamer form of the one-note, radical chic criticisms of Fairey's work.

Exit Through the Gift Shop--billed a documentary--is perhaps the cleverest thing Banksy has ever done if, as many believe, he is the film's puppet-master. The premise is simple. We are first introduced to Thierry Guetta, an eccentric (and real) Frenchman who obsessively documents his own life with a camcorder. Upon seeing the work of his nephew, the French street artist Space Invader, Guetta discovers a new world of subjects for his never-to-be-completed films. After striking up an unusual friendship with Banksy, this world's most mysterious figure, Guetta begins to wonder: perhaps he might be a legend himself.

Along the way, there are some touching, suggestive asides about memory, loss and the unknown, as when Thierry, in a rare moment of lucidity, confesses the reasons for his obsession with videotaping everything. But what really makes Exit so exceptional is its troubled attitude toward its cataloger-turned-self-made star, Thierry, whose ego quickly becomes a thing to behold. His arc occasions Banksy to question and ridicule his own fame, all the while rationalizing it. Even if the film is about a system that prizes mischief and anarchy, there are unwritten rule. Rather than working his way up street art's anonymous hierarchy, Thierry debuts with a giant, obnoxious solo show, and it's hard to fault his ambition. But as he begins to produce his own work—obvious, laughable mimicries of Banksy, Fairey, Warhol and others—it becomes clear that there aren't any ideas scaffolding Thierry's works. He sets up the gift shop before tending to the gallery. His star rises nonetheless, as it did for his heroes. Ultimately, he's no different from Banksy, Fairey, Robbo or any of the rest, except that he oversteps the rule that distinguishes the stalwart from the toy: just because you can doesn't mean you should.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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