Recently I wrote about using art as a vehicle of meaningful expression. I think instinctively people know that art is meant to say something, but we don’t always necessarily think about what art is saying. In general, we’re perfectly fine acting as consumers, being passive receptors of a message in a medium, rarely going beyond the obvious and the aesthetic. I’ll be the first to say mea culpa; sometimes I just wanna sit on the couch and watch whatever The Fast & The Furious movie we’re up to these days and just disconnect my brain. The problem is that, as a society, we’re not doing that once in a while, but all the time.
The root problem is a lack of critical thinking skills at the sociocultural level. We’ve become a society where we take things at face value without engaging our brain to consider what we’re told. In the US this behavior is now a matter of political policy as the current administration wallows like a pig in the proverbial mud creating nonsense terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news,” knowing full well that a large slice of the American people will buy what they’re selling wholesale.
All these ideas were still fresh on my mind when I sat down to watch Exit Through the Gift Shop, the documentary by/about (kinda) street artist Banksy. The film is really about Thierry Guetta, an amateur filmmaker who gets access to a number of street artists around the world, including Banksy. Guetta says he’ll make a documentary about street artists, bungles it, then has the camera turned on him by Banksy as he reinvents himself as a street artist named Mr. Brainwash. In a matter of weeks, Mr. Brainwash emerges onto the “scene” fully-made in a massive solo art show endorsed by Banksy, full of “artwork” that is entirely copycatting icons of pop art and street art, selling pieces in the thousands of dollars–and people fall for it hook, line, and sinker! It’s a fascinating film but not for the reasons I originally thought. The film has practically nothing to do with Banksy and his art, except it does in that the film can be seen as his commentary on the fakeness of the art world.
You’ll need to watch it to draw your own conclusion, but despite claims to the contrary, there are many who think the film is arguably the biggest prank Bansy has played on the world. Personally, I believe the documentary is real in that it chronicles the creation of a complete fake, then revels in seeing people eat it all up without question. Or as the New York Times’ Melena Ryzik writes,
“Ultimately, wondering whether “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is real or not may be moot. It certainly asks real questions: about the value of authenticity, financially and aesthetically; about what it means to be a superstar in a subculture built on shunning the mainstream; about how sensibly that culture judges, and monetizes, talent.”
“All art is political. In a society dominated by elites who use art to manipulate the public, art can only ever be political. You either (A) make art directly in service of the ruling class, (B) make art indirectly in service to the ruling class by promulgating dominant orthodoxies, (C) make innocuous mall art which sits there placidly distracting everyone while the world burns, or (D) make revolutionary art, born of inspiration.”
But there’s a flip side to that coin, and that’s the role of the audience, which is to receive, decode, and critically think about the message they have been given through art. If we as audiences don’t engage in this exercise, if all we do is consume mindlessly, we will continue to be propagandized to by people, groups, corporations, and government entities with agendas. If we don’t engage our critical thinking, fake art will be the least of our problems, and we will deserve all the Mr. Brainwashes and Donald Trumps we get.