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.
Can 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 bigshinything.com