"Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable."
Art is in the eye of the beholder. That's the reason visual art gallery owners will never go the way of the video store owners — the art collectors need someone to reassure them that their tastes aren't too freaky, or stupid, or ordinary before they throw down the big money. Video rentals were five bucks so no one cared what anyone thought about their tastes.
Art is complicated, too. A lot of that expensive high art looks like someone's kid painted it (sometimes one did, download My Kid Could Paint That), but that stuff needs to be taken in historical context. The first person to just put a blue stripe down a white canvas and call it finished was actually doing something no one had ever done before, it took balls.
And these days few in the art world have balls as big as Banksy, the anonymous street artist known for antics like painting murals on Israel's West Bank barrier wall, or opening an entire subversive, apocalyptic theme park called Dismaland — "a chaotic new world where you can escape from mindless escapism."
Probably the most famous contemporary artist on the planet, Banksy's first film, Exit through the Gift Shop, was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2011 Academy Awards, and this week Banksy streams right into your living room with the release of Banksy Does New York. Directed by Chris Moukarbel (Me at the Zoo), the film is a look at Bansky's 31-day "residency" in New York City, the birthplace of graffiti as an art form. The film follows regular New Yorkers as they scavenger hunt their city each morning in search of that day's new Banksy work and captures the Internet-fuelled mayhem that ensues.
As an art history piece for Bansky fans who weren't in New York in October 2013, this flick is a rollicking good time, but it's also an incredibly deft work of filmmaking. With each day's new art location only hinted at on Banksy's Instagram feed, director Moukarbel relies heavily on crowd-sourced video clips from the general public who get to the spots first and use their own phones/cameras to record and share the event. It's a mosaic-like form of filmmaking that would have been impossible to make a decade ago in the documentary genre, and that makes it interesting and cool.
Of course, Banksy Does New York hits larger issues, too; the conflict/parallels of graffiti and advertisements is in there, along with questions about what constitutes art nowadays and what moral issues arise from someone trying to sell a piece that was put up for free in the public space. Three auto mechanics attempting to sell a Banksy sculpture they found near their shop claim they didn't steal it because Banksy hasn't reported it stolen.
That concept gets its own full film treatment in How to Sell A Banksy, a new flick on Netflix. In 2005, East Londoner Chris Thompson and some buddies got drunk and took a metal spatula to an iconic Banksy paste-up. They made off with three riot police with smiley faces that once adorned the Shoreditch Railroad Bridge in Hackney. The piece was essentially shredded during removal but Thompson hung onto the fragments for five years and the film kicks off as he, now unemployed, decides to have the artwork restored in order to sell it. Only problem — it's obviously been stolen from a public space and everybody knows it.
This flick is nowhere near as fun or engaging as Banksy Does New York but it has something to say about the value, perceived vs. real vs. whatever, of commercial art and the ethics of stealing free art for a profit. In his book, Wall and Piece, Banksy himself writes, "When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires."
Film is also art of course, though much of it these days is that aforementioned mindless escapism. Case in point, The Transporter Refuelled returns that shoot-'em-chase franchise to the Village 8 this week with no press screenings and longtime transporter Jason Statham is replaced by a kid named Ed Skrein. That's about all I know.
What does look like fun is the wacky pothead/ super-agent flick American Ultra starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, John Leguizamo and Topher Grace. Solid cast in a good dark comedy with a side of purple kush absurdism, and it's directed by the guy who made Project X, which is undoubtedly a stronger party movie than We Are Your Friends, also playing this week.
And of course Straight Outta Compton is still the biggest film in North America because those foul-mouthed, disturbing rappers were actually artists after all. Who knew?