Today's post is going to be a little more serious, so feel free to stop reading right here.
I just saw Banksy's film Exit Through the Gift Shop and it crystallized a few ideas I've had about art in the context of our generation. For those of you who haven't seen it, the film is a (possibly staged) indictment of the art world's assignation of monetary value to works based on the notoriety of their creator. This has been the dominant trend of exhibited paintings and sculptures throughout the twentieth century -- due to the rise of abstract expressionism, wherein the quality of materials and the technical skill required to execute a work are no longer great factors upon its monetary worth.
Once Frank Stella and his fellow minimalists had abstracted art down to virtual nothingness, merely "flatness and the delimination (real word?) of flatness," it seemed the final nail had been struck into the coffin of two-dimensional painted media. Representation was long dead, and abstraction had culminated, necessarily, in an anticlimactic void. As with all modern and post-modern expression, the problem lay in its reductive nature -- it offered no new answers, no new forms or questions to explore, merely a guide to ultimate destruction. This epoch had spiraled down into a dead end, the gyre never to widen again.
So, photography and sculpture took its place, and some contented themselves with telling the same joke Picasso and DeKooning had worn out decades ago, but it all felt hollow. I strongly believe painting is one of the mediums closest to the human spirit, something that will never become obselete, even in this era of split-millisecond photography and the seemingly limitless powers of cgi. Enter the street artists, perhaps the first new school of painting in half a century. They made the medium exciting and dangerous again, operating just outside of the realm of legality. Toying with concepts of vandalism and copyright infringement is fundamental to their medium, and as Shepard Fairey himself often said/sprayed: "The Medium is the Message."
It's an incredibly seductive art form, in no small part due to the fact that it seems so easy -- requiring only basic photoshop skills and a bit of daring to get started -- and Banksy works hard in his documentary to dissuade would-be apprentices. Banksy's work is clearly more energetic and inspired than the likes of "Mr. Brainwash" (whether or not his body of work is just an elaborate hoax on the part of Banksy to prove that the medium has a diverse strata of quality) and he also seems to have figured out that in our age, true fame is anonymity. That may sound contradictory, but in a time when anyone can read about the details of their favorite celebrity's latest bowel movement via a live twitter feed, the only way that the famous might regain some of the mystique, the potent sense of "otherness" of past celebrities is by making themselves as mysterious as possible.
So in short, these street artists have created a reliable formula for artistic prominence in the hyperreactive, cannibalistic culture of the internet generation. You can't download the side of a building -- you can only experience their work in its proper context by venturing out into the world and discovering it with your own eyeballs. Even if their masterpieces are torn down within hours, each has still existed in a true and uncorrupted format for longer than anything put out by the music industry in over a decade. Yes, their work takes on some of the more loathsome qualities of our generation: a tendency toward sentimentality and obvious irony, an absurd reverence for pop culture underlying puerile and inarticulate sarcasm, but it's still more relevant and forceful than anything put on a canvas in at least twenty-five years.