Thoughts on Originality, Value and Hype in Outsider Art

by Carla Sakamoto , Spring 2011

Having received numerous accolades this past film award season and being recently released on DVD, the Banksy-directed documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, presents ideas worthy of re-examination and most timely within the recent context of “outsider art” traversing into the realm of more mainstream appreciation and acceptance in the contemporary art world. The documentary reveals rarely seen footage of street artists who work illegally under cover of darkness, pasting or painting onto public surfaces alternately subtle or shocking images and messages more akin to propaganda than advertising, but proudly called art by the critics, collectors, connoisseurs and “laymen” art fans who see its value as such. The most lauded of the rogue bunch, namely the notorious and anonymous Banksy, has transcended the borders of high art and ended up on the pristine white walls of galleries and museums.

What we have seen recently is that what was once considered “outsider” art, dismissed as vandalism or marginalized by the mainstream, but with a cult following, is now receiving a legitimization through one of the clearest ways to determine the value of creative work—money. This is not an entirely new occurrence or phenomenon in art, but in the spirit of an ever fickle zeitgeist, the question of what determines value in the art world can always be an interesting one. What does the market bear for non-academic, “outsider” art? What will a collector willingly pay to obtain a commodity in such a subjective medium? Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder intellectually and emotionally, but in the cold business of art, the dollar value of beauty is often only as good as its surrounding hype and the intangible aura that gives it its value. Even brand-name artists, alive or deceased, go through a period of hype and “buzz” before appropriate arbiters imbue them with meaning and value, firmly establishing them in art history. As seen in the case of the main subject of Exit, amateur videographer Thierry Guetta, who anoints himself with the moniker “Mr. Brainwash,” fringe artist/pop provocateur extraordinaire, the ephemeral qualities of hype and aura, ones that are difficult to measure in plain economic terms, are what can elevate “outsider” art into “insider” art. In the documentary, Banksy states there is a “power” and “mystery” in the art world, meaning that being an elusive or anonymous artist can be intriguing enough to provide intangible value. Going from the blank municipal spaces of building walls, sidewalks, bridges and overpasses to the rarefied brick and mortar bastions of high culture has never seemed easier.

Guetta as Mr. Brainwash shows that originality and imitation are flimsily interchangeable concepts, and that intellectually-prized “originality” is not necessary in order for a piece of art to have value. The word “appropriation” can be used as a protective umbrella, of sorts, to defend why imitation is occurring; once you re-use an image and somehow degrade, vandalize, add, change or adjust it, it now bears the authorship of the new artist and it can be seen as a newly validated, original work of art. Appropriation in the best art is a vital re-imagination and re-positing of previous associations with that well-known image—it can provocatively and humorously play with the notion of something that collectively sits in the conscience of purveyors of art history or denizens of popular culture—and upend it. Unfortunately, the intellectual use of the term “appropriation” can also be a cheap way to justify art that is highly imitative and hastily borrowed to lend some kind of instant credibility for those it is trying to impress. Shocking for shock’s sake certainly cannot be in the same category as the entertaining subversion of Banksy or the subtly political provocation of Shepard Fairey, two of the leading artists Guetta idolizes and then superficially emulates. As Mr. Brainwash, Guetta does not seem to decipher these differences or be aware of the origins of what he is referencing in his overly derivative quickie art. It is not to say that there isn’t real physical craft, skill or some kind of artisanship occurring in his artwork, as he employs “real” graphic artists and designers to execute his vision. But in his relentless secondary and often tertiary use of known images from art and pop culture, Brainwash begs any claim on true originality. Fairey and Banksy’s reactions are no less than barely veiled abhorrence to the spectacle of his instant notoriety and commercial success as a “next big thing” contemporary pop artist.

Although Guetta as Mr. Brainwash has been able to generate considerable hype, curiosity and ultimately financial rewards for his work, he may never be able to conjure or manufacture the intellectual and critical respect of the art world. This is regardless of the fact that beauty and aesthetic pleasure are still in the eye of the beholder. In contrast, another street artist, the French “photograffeur” known as JR—whose startling, enormous scale photography prints with a humanitarian message have already gleaned accolades and blue chip figures from the art market—has been granted a most honorable and “priceless” validation from the world of ideas, ingenuity and intellectual endeavor. He was named the TED prizewinner for 2011, showing how originality, whether is it associated with surrounding hype and glamour or not, is deemed rare and valuable, and should be awarded. Appreciative of his new global recognition, JR, the artist, has only the noblest and pure wishes for his own artwork’s new life under its collector’s ownership—that the art will now make a statement in a larger political and philosophical context and that it isn’t simply a commodity to be traded, an investment whose value will appreciate over time: “I want to sell to people who buy the work because they want to be part of the broader project, and not because they want to sell the work on” (Gaby Wood, “Supercolossal Street Art,” New York Times Magazine, 24 February 2011). JR isn’t naïve, however, and knows that the handsome prices his work now receives fund his covert global projects—pasting large-scale poster portraits of everyday citizens living in areas of strife or warfare onto public walls, homes and rooftops, with the goal of illuminating a universal humanness.

A great irony emerges in Exit as it shows Guetta to have truly embodied the spirit of an original artist in the beginning with his endless quest and curiosity to capture the personalities, imagery, and nocturnal guerrilla-style operations of these daring street artists. His abundant video footage was raw material for a potentially groundbreaking film with thrillingly new coverage of a rarely-seen aspect of this underground world. Yet, perhaps not having the innate talent and ingenuity to define his own voice and produce a documentary, Guetta chose a perhaps more shrewd path to gain entrée into the cloistered world of high art. He was more inspired to brazenly copy the personae of these trailblazing outsider artists rather than actually create an original artistic life of his own. If anything, Exit can be viewed as an unwittingly authentic performance art piece of a non-artist going through the motions of becoming a celebrated artist and, inevitably, becoming one. One is left with the uneasy feeling that “good” outsider art can more than lend a hand in legitimizing all outsider art.