Wednesday, July 28, 2010

From Banksy to Banktown

Posted By on Wed, Jul 28, 2010 at 10:03 AM

Graffiti at Mecklenburg/Johnston Mills, Noda. Image courtesy — Marcus Kiser.
  • Graffiti at Mecklenburg/Johnston Mills, Noda. Image courtesy — Marcus Kiser.

Banksy was here! Well, not really (wouldn’t it have been cool though?) — but at least his film, the most anticipated and discussed movie of the year (as far as visual art world is concerned), Exit Through the Gift Shop — was playing here.

Maybe as many words have been written about the film as people have watched it, and I don’t wish to regurgitate the thoughts or re-speculate on the “truthiness” of the film. These are just some thoughts provoked by the film on contemporary art, graffiti/street art, and finally, its place in Charlotte.

The so-called contemporary “art world”, as the readers of this blog might know all too well, is a strange place. On one hand it is the most open, egalitarian world, occupied mostly by people who have made a conscious choice to follow a tough path in life as an artist, purely because of their love and dedication to their art. On the other hand, it has a rather closed highly exclusive center, where success (and hence, fame and fortune) is decided by a relatively small number of critics, large institutions, dealers, gallery owners and their affluent patrons, mostly based in a handful of big cities. But it is also a very insecure center, as it is always trying to maintain its contemporariness and “edginess” by finding and including what is well outside that glorified circle. And while being isolated from most major social trends of the day, it is very susceptible to media hype, and the short-lived fads that they engender.

It is this insecurity, this breach in the proverbial camp, that allows people like Bansky and Shepard Fairey (to mention the biggest names in the medium of “street art”, and also two of the main artists featured in the film) to mock and exploit the establishment, and to profit from it.

Whether it is hip-hop or rock music, the art of rebellion soon gets co-opted by the very forces that they oppose. Street art is being used these days by the biggest corporations like Toyota, Reebok and IBM. Has the medium thus lost its effectiveness as the voice of the counter-culture? Is “Exit Through he Gift Shop” thus meant to be an epitaph to street art that has gotten commercialized and absorbed by the establishment?

No matter whether Mr. Brainwash is real or a fake, or whether the whole thing is a “prankumentary” or not, it is not too often that a low budget summer flick can make one laugh, and raise such questions.

A basic tenet of Richard Florida’s famous prescription for the growth of cities is that places that are open to “gays and bohemians” are also places that attract creativity and hence growth. I would like to think that any city where graffiti has developed and gained enough quantity and depth to be termed “street art” are also cities that have attained culturally fertility at all levels of the society.

Charlotte doesn’t do well in that regard. Thanks to an anti-graffiti task force, we see little “creative vandalism” around here. We need to search hard to find the few remaining places where graffiti still (barely) exists. One such place is behind the boarded up Mecklenburg/Johnston Mills (see photo), which perhaps not coincidentally, was also the birthplace for some of the now flourishing slam poetry groups, as well as art collectives like God City.

How does a city balance its zero-tolerance of any kind of crime, while allowing the creative expression of individuals who otherwise does not have any venue for that? How far are we from producing our own Bansky or Fairey, if not the Banktown Basquiat?

Manoj P Kesavan

Fairey interviews Banksy — worth a read:

Special thanks to Antoine, Marcus, Tim and Wolly of God City — local artists who draw inspiration from graffiti and street art. This article is in part the outcome of a discussion with them about the film.

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