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Exit Through the Art World

Street art has always existed on the periphery of the art world, almost daring spectators to determine whether it has a rightful position as art or if it is just subversive vandalism. It is found in every city of the world, and the innovation and creativity demonstrated in its genre is universally astounding. Created in the shadows and under cover of night, we rarely have an opportunity to see a work in progress, watch the artist create, or understand the purpose and objective of the final product . This year ‘s Academy Award Oscar nominations include a documentary that takes viewers on a ride through the world of street art to do just that.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop” was nominated in the category of Best Documentary. It was filmed over almost a decade by videographer Thierry Guetta, a Los Angeles store owner who initially began filming a street artist called “Space Invader” known for his cartoon like sticker art. Guetta ‘s film follows “Space Invader” and other graffiti outlaws as they create their pieces throughout the city of Los Angeles. A contact is made with  a well known but anonymous British street artist known as Banksy- who ‘s identity is never revealed throughout the film. Banksy ‘s exploits are filmed and documented, including his daring feat of hanging a Guantanamo Bay effigy over the railing of the Big Thunder Mountain Ride at Disneyland.  Also included in the film is the metamorphosis of Guetta from sole videographer to punk/street/pop artist with his own show and street name of MBW- Mr. Brain Wash.  

 Is the film a well designed jab at the world of fine art? Or is it just a documentary on a subversive art form whose primary function is social commentary and the antithesis of traditional art? The title- “Exit Through the Gift Shop” refers to an engineering merchandising concept that dumps guests from amusement park rides directly into a gift shop-a concept designed to fatten the corporate coffers. Traditionally, street artists shun all that is associated with the world of fine art- including the huge sums of money paid for artwork. Street art, by definition, is unsanctioned art developed in public spaces. It ‘s purpose is not to “change the definition of artwork but to question the existing environment with it ‘s own language”. Historically street art included graffiti created with paint, markers, chalk, but it has come to include sticker art, etchings or scratch graffiti, wheat pasting, street poster art, flash mobbing and street installations.  

Banksy, and many like him, hover around the borders of criminal activity with their art. He has damaged public property, stenciled private homes, and according to the documentary, has boxes of forged British money with Princess Diana ‘s face on it instead of the Queen ‘s. It is no wonder that he keeps his identity under wraps. There are other street artists whose work is so innovative and sensational, however, that their work could hardly be considered criminal.. Joshua Allen Harris is a street artist in New York City who has harnessed the exhaust from subways to create phenomenal monsters, animals and creatures from ordinary discarded shopping bags and tape.  He attaches the bags to subway grates and allows the exhaust from the trains to inflate his designs. Totally Zen, the creations do not endure, but are no less enchanting. Julian Beever is another street artist albeit a more traditional one.  His work, also temporary, is a collection of amazing sidewalk chalk art that create the illusion of depth and dimension. Both artists, by definition, are urban art outlaws using the public environment as their canvas. So why are we more accepting of a chalk trompe l ‘oil than we are of spray painted one?  

No street artist expects his work to last. Part of the romance of graffiti has always been the knowledge that it is temporary.  Why then, do these artists go to such great lengths to create work that the Graffiti Task Force is going to white wash over?  Or that the elements will wash away? Perhaps street art is iconic of the society that we have created for ourselves- temporary and fleeting. Our world is constantly being replaced with new innovations and technology. The sense of permanence that we once had about jobs, where we live, how we interact with the world, is gone.  Information changes no longer on a daily basis but on an hourly one. Art has always been a reflection of the world in which is was created. Street art reflects our impermanent world- but only too well, for its own impermanence ensures that it will not last long enough for future generations to admire, examine and honor.

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