Street Art and Selling Out: Can Authenticity Be Cool?


This is something I do not have.

I’m earnest. I used to work at PBS, for Pete’s sake. I’m a vegetarian. I practice yoga. There is nothing edgy about me.

To wit: I do not know about the latest indie band.

* * *

Then, there’s Banksy.

Do you know about Banksy? He’s a street artist who rose to celebrity status thanks to a series of highly visible political pranks, like planting a blow-up doll of a Guantanamo prisoner at Disneyland, and painting a provocative series of images on Israel’s West Bank wall (which The Guardian chronicles, here). Exposure on The Simpsons didn’t hurt, either. Banksy also produced the 2010 film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is generating significant Oscar buzz.

One of Banksy’s West Bank paintingsCan you still be a credible critic of mainstream, commercial culture if you’re worshipped by the Establishment? How about if the people you ridicule pay you millions for your work?

I ask these questions as a yogi and writer who is deeply committed to living an authentic life, and also as an avid student of media and culture. How free are we to be our authentic selves, and how is that freedom influenced by the forces of media, culture… and the money that flows through both?

* * *

I’ve casually followed the world of street art for a few years now, almost completely via The Wooster Collective, a website that’s widely considered the definitive chronicle of street art from around the world. It thrills me to see the gorgeous and inventive ways in which artists around the world find ways to interrupt public life with subversive political statements (something that’s also known as “culture jamming” – to learn more about culture jamming, check out the website for Adbusters, which calls itself “culturejammer headquarters”).

I know, what street artists do is against the law… but so much about our commercial culture offends me (for example, the billions of dollars that advertisers spend in an attempt to control our minds and behaviors), that I find myself cheering for those who dare to provide a counter-message. It gives me hope that there’s space for authenticity in a culture dominated by commerce.

(Despite its earnest image, counter-programming is in fact what PBS — and, more generally, public media — is all about, in my book: Providing alternative images and stories to the commercial ones that flood our world. Now, whether or not public media always achieves this vision, is a subject for another post.)

It strikes me that the more media attention Banksy receives, the more it feels like he’s trying to taunt the media, rather than simply express his cultural dissent. I realize I’m making a lot of assumptions here about his motivations…but it seems like this tension between original artistic impulse, and calculated manipulation of audience (including media), is the central tension of Exit Through the Gift Shop.

* * *

It’s always bothered me that the people who run The Wooster Collective work in advertising. It strikes me as hypocritical, to devote so much of your life to celebrating something as subversive as street art, on the one hand, and then to make a living perpetuating commercial culture. Are you an insider or an outsider? Can you authentically be both?

But maybe that’s a clue to the truth about street art. Maybe it’s never been as earnest as I imagine. Maybe the artists’ motivations have always been cloudy, or at least some of the artist’s motivations. Or maybe the simple act of trying to appreciate a subculture from the outside, inevitably turns the subculture into a commodity to the outsider.

Maybe the artist’s intentions don’t matter. Maybe authenticity is in the eye of the beholder.

* * *

We are drawn to mystique. Celebrities fascinate us because we don’t know them, and the lives they lead are not familiar to us. Underground art movements capture our imaginations, because they promise that there is more to life than meets the eye.

The grass is always greener… and so we peer, always, over the fence.

But what if we decided to value the familiar?

What if everything, and everyone, right around us, was fascinating?

What if Banksy could be cool, even if he was a dorky suburban dad, as he’s imagined in the video below? (Note, I found this video on Banksy’s website.)

How can we create more value for authenticity in our culture, and in our own lives?

Photo above via


16 thoughts on “Street Art and Selling Out: Can Authenticity Be Cool?

  1. "Maybe the artist's intentions don't matter. Maybe authenticity is in the eye of the beholder."a wonderful question. i appreciate a good tv commercial. i know i'm stuck with them, and i'm a happy camper when i see a clever or creative one. there is nothing authentic about a tv commercial, but every now and then they can be other news, a lot of the old, "authentic" music i listen to is not as authentic as we think it is. in the 1920s, record producers found down-home guys and encouraged them to play up the rural, outsider nature of their sound…because there was a big market for that sort of sound. this wasn't always the case, but it did happen with some musicians. listening back in the day, you'd hear a deliberate attempt to evoke authenticity. but today, can we tell the difference between the real down-home guys and the ones that are playing it up? not without a lot of effort…


  2. Great post! And, for the record, you are certainly edgier than I am for whatever that's worth. If you were interested in finding out about the latest indie band, at least you'd know where to look!The question that struck me the most was, "How free are we to be our authentic selves, and how is that freedom influenced by the forces of media, culture… and the money that flows through both?" I think my biggest challenge is just knowing who my "authentic self" is amidst all of the these forces. Even when I am making a concerted effort not to be swayed by all of the images constantly parading by, I find myself flocking towards the latest this and that. Facebook, Twitter, blogging and the like open up the influencing to every casual acquaintance we befriend along the way. Am I less authentic because who I am and what I care about, at least on a surface level, is so easily shaped (and reshaped) by the relentless barrage of info about what everyone else thinks? Probably. All the more reason to have a quieter, dare I say less plugged in, year.


  3. Michelle – I hear you. It's hard to exist in such a mediated world and find respite from the images and ideas that come into our lives on a daily basis. I sometimes take a "media break" one day a week, where I resist the urge to go online, and don't watch TV or read anything but books… it can be incredibly refreshing, like getting a reboot. But I don't know if it's possible to have an identity that isn't at least somewhat shaped by media and culture, no matter how mindfully we live… it's the world we live in. Dave, I love the idea of fake authenticity….don't people accuse Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman) of the same thing? It's tempting to say "Well then, an artist's intentions don't matter, just deal with the art," but something inside me fights that tooth and nail… I think intention matters a LOT. But I also think it's often un-knowable. So, what to do with that conundrum?!I sure don't know.


  4. Have you seen Beautiful Losers? Same themes as Exit Through, but a wider range of artistic 'success'. You probably lose some of your cred as underground if you do advertising, but it was going to get mass-marketed anyway. Think too much about it, and you wind up like Kurt Cobain.


  5. This post (and "Exit Through The Gift Shop") got me thinking about the Dadaists, and their take on art and authenticity. Dadaist poet Hugo Ball said "For us, art is not an end in itself … but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in." I think there's a case to be made that commercialized, commodified "underground" art is indeed a true perception of our times, where subcultures are discovered, cleaned up, marketed, and sold before they even have time to grow and change into more fully realized expressions.Like you, I really feel like intentions matter in art…but of course unelss I'm the one making the art, I really can't say that I have any true idea what the artist's intentions were when I'm looking at a piece of art or listening to music, etc. I'd like to think I could tell just by listening to the music who "really meant it" and who was just cashing in, but I know enough to know that I really can't know.


  6. Lorelei! Great to have you here 🙂 Yes, I've seen Beautiful Losers, and I was actually thinking about it as I wrote this post… how sad it made me to see street artists working at ad agencies. UGH. When you say "but it was going to get mass-marketed anyway" – do you mean, once something underground goes, well, above ground, it becomes a commodity anyway… so the artists might as well be the ones benefiting? If so… that's really interesting. I see your point, but I'm not sure I agree… but then again, I'm a purist.Your Kurt Cobain reference is very apropos – the perils of an artist dealing with mainstream success…how commercial success not only changes the cultural meaning of the art, but also changes the artist him/herself. Changes/f*cks up…. I wonder, are there any examples of commercial success changing an artist for the better? There must be, yet none are coming to mind….


  7. Jordan, maybe we live in such a mediated world that the line between art and marketing is blurring ever-more, as artists seek ways to break through the noise to get their commentary heard. I'm not saying this was what Mr. Brainwash did in Exit — I don't actually think he had anything to say (which is what makes his show such a Dadaist act, in my mind….take a urinal, call it a fountain; hire people to produce a street art show for you, and ta-da, you're a street artist). I really like this: "subcultures are discovered, cleaned up, marketed, and sold before they even have time to grow and change into more fully realized expressions." Exactly. Again, the blurring line between art and marketing. We see this in youth culture especially. Now I sound like an old lady professor and so I will stop typing.


  8. I think the questioon of intention and authenticity in art is one which generally leads down a rabbit hole. Where do artists like Andy Warhol fit in to a world where the question is one of art versus authenticity? Isn't the very inauthenticity of his art what makes it authentic? What about Jackson Pollock – his art is, on the surface, as personal an expression as one can imagine in the world of painting – just drips of paint on a canvas arranged according to happenstance, vision, and personal whim. But does that make it authentic? What if he kept coming back to that style because it sold and his earlier work didn't? And is his work more or less authentic than that of a painter hired to paint religious frescoes in the days when religious paintings and portraits were all that a painter could get hired to do? If banksy is painting street art specifically to grab attention, does that make it less authentic, or is that just a reflection of his most authentic self as someone who wants to be noticed?In the end, we can only strive to be ourselves and to express ourselves as best we can. But who we are is always changing, by virtue of new experiences, changed circumstances in our lives, and the types of interactions we have with people. For someone who achieves a certain amount of fame through art, achieving that fame will change their art because true art has to reflect a person's world view in some way. And the work that comes out of a change like that will be judged in relation to previous work… with such judgment necessarily influencing the creative impulse for work still to come. For artists out of the public eye, you can strive to be yourself, but who you are will necessarily change. The person you are at 20 is different from the person you are at 30, and neither is truly inauthentic, they're just… different. And if who we are changes with time, then canwe _ever_ be our authentic selves, or are we just always searching for the newest, most up to date us amdist a backdrop of previous iterations? I do think that the necessity to live and, therefore, the necessity to make money, pulls people away from more pure expressions of artistic impulses, but I also think that it opens up opportunities for new types of art and new forms of expression. The real trick is finding a balance between living one's life and expressing oneself that allows one to do both without feeling artistically compromised; that's a balance that can only be defined by the individual. We can question someone's choice and believe that we would have chosen differently, but ultimately the only choice of balance that we get to make is our own.


  9. Thought-provoking topic! "Calculated manipulation of audience" isn't the sole domain of the commercial. Every artist is carefully constructing their work to cause a reaction in the viewer, to manipulate the viewer. And I don't think you necessarily have to be counter-culture to be authentic. Being mainstream could be just as authentic. The real question is what do we mean by authenticity? Perhaps it's not so much in the eye of the beholder but in the heart of the artist. To thine own self be true. And as far as valuing authenticity, I think we ARE seeing a greater valuation of it as social media/interaction grows. As people become more sophisticated consumers of media, we become immune to the usual corporate/advertising speak. Witness the reaction to the BP's response to the oil spill: people demanded real answers over bland speech; real action over placation. Witness the transition pains in the media industry as the ad-supported content model weakens. People are demonstrably hungry for content so why is the model weakening? Because consumers aren't responding to advertising online which in turn devalues the medium to advertisers. Of course this has other consequences. How do support the content that we value?


  10. Really interesting post, I'm glad I stumbled onto your blog. Love the question you raise about the "tension between original artistic impulse, and calculated manipulation of audience" and whether art that's pulled in these two opposing directions can be authenic. It definitely got me thinking.I think there are actually two smaller questions here. The first is whether or not the artist can still be authentic and the second is, can that art still be authentically appreciated? The second part of the question is easier for me, and it is definitely, emphatically, yes. My feeling is, if art (or anything really) provokes an honest reaction in someone, then that thing becomes honest. Take Mormonism, for example. Joseph Smith was a con-man and there's a good chance the religion he founded was an elaborate con. But because it's resonated with something truthful for its followers, and practiced genuinely by them, the religion itself becomes genuine. I'm of the opinion that where people are honestly looking for God they will find God, and where people are looking for truth they will find that too because these things are meant to be found. Which is I think what you're getting at when you say, " Maybe the artist's intentions don't matter. Maybe authenticity is in the eye of the beholder"As for the first part of the question – can the creator still be authentic – I think the answer is still yes, but less emphatically so. You say that street artists' "motivations have always been cloudy," but I would go so far to say that that line is cloudy for ALL artists. That tension between artistic impulse and audience manipulation is always there. On one hand, art – authentic art – is supposed to be created for oneself; it's supposed come from a deeply personal place, a passion so vital it must be expressed. On the other, I can't think of a medium of art that's NOT supposed to be shared with and appreciated by an audience. (I think a lot about this especially as a theater artist, where the art doesn't even EXIST unless shared with an audience). That is the whole point of art, I think, to share something that's yours with someone else. And I think anyone who tells you they never consider the "someone else" part of the equation – how they will interpret it, if they will like it – and doesn't, in some part, shape their work for them, is lying.


  11. Matt, I love this observation of yours: "If banksy is painting street art specifically to grab attention, does that make it less authentic, or is that just a reflection of his most authentic self as someone who wants to be noticed?" As a performer, wanting attention is certainly part of who I am. That said, I disagree with @summerbl4ck that "Every artist is carefully constructing their work to cause a reaction in the viewer, to manipulate the viewer." Certainly, the audience is often in my mind as a writer… but I can honestly say that when I get into a certain flow state, my mind is entirely focused on the creation, and on finding the right word or words…audience response be damned. There's a feeling of wholeness and completion that comes, like I've finally given birth to something inside me, and if the world calls my baby ugly, then so be it!Then again, I check my blog, Twitter and FB often to see how people have responded to my blog posts. So I always care about people's reaction. I just don't focus on the audience during the creative process itself.Leigh, I love this sentiment: "'I'm of the opinion that where people are honestly looking for God they will find God, and where people are looking for truth they will find that too because these things are meant to be found." In other words, someone's experience with a work of art is as much about them as it is about the art itself… which certainly puts the question of the artist's intentions into perspective!


  12. Ok, so maybe not every artist 😉 Coincidentally I've been reading about the play "Red" about Mark Rothko and a couple of quotes struck me. (I don't know if they are directly from Rothko himself or just within the play, but still interesting.) “I don’t express myself in my paintings; I express my not-self.”“I am here to make you think. . . . I am not here to make pretty pictures!”I don't think that an artist, in order to be authentic, must create only for themselves. And as @Jordan said we can never really know an artist's internal motivations or internal life, so perhaps it can't be part of a good definition of authenticity.


  13. Late to the party! Like your post. Here's my two cents: The artist's intentions are irrelevant, in my opinion. (Although, it can be interesting to learn what the intension is/was.) The interpretation, the meaning, is brought to a piece of art by the individual, the crowd, and the larger context of the culture in which the art was created and resounds, or doesn't, and all of those players influence one another. Art is manipulation in a sense, isn't it? Why do we need to own art? What does the art I own say about me (and what do I want it to say)?So, we all know that Banksy teases and plays with that tension, with the commercialization of art, with the very definition and interaction that people have with it. What is a work of art? Are you an artist just because you self-apply the name and promote yourself (Mr. Brain Wash)? Does everyone really have a book in them? (See the Fran Lebowitz docu.) Art evolving from advertisement, from commercialization, from a social network riot of retweets and posts that gather thousands of people to laud a superficial and frenetic hash of … art? Limited edition, signed, silkscreen prints. Get yours why they last.And to answer your question, "But what if we decided to value the familiar"; I think great art is the ability to portray the familiar, the day-to-day, in a way that maybe reminds us of our humanness, or elevates the mundane into something else entirely and carries us along with it. In my opinion, the downside of social networks, of online culture, is the influence of the crowd. We are so busy patting ourselves on the back for the amount of information we have at our fingertips, how informed we all are, how quickly information can pass between us, that we lose the ability to live in the moment, to form our own opinions, to experience, to be authentic.


  14. Kate – so beautifully said: "I think great art is the ability to portray the familiar, the day-to-day, in a way that maybe reminds us of our humanness, or elevates the mundane into something else entirely and carries us along with it." Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.Your comment about the influence of the crowd is interesting….while I see what you mean, I also think social networks can lead you to communities that you never would have found off-line (I'm thinking for example of my Reverb 10 community from last year). And for me, feeling connected to an artistic community is essential to feeling like I can create authentic art.


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