Drowned Icons

by Oliver Geffken. Average Reading Time: about 7 minutes.

A journey through contemporary art: In his film debut, a documentary about (street) art the English artist Banksy invites the audience to his movie „Exit through the Gift Shop“ (we’d rather call it „Leave some money while passing Go!“), nastily smelling like self-adulation in the first view, the superstar of street artists, the still unknown Englishman Banksy, thwarts the cultural activities of 21st century in an intelligent, profound, ironic and very entertaining way and reveals the interdependencies between underground and commerce. By constructing an artistic career he is able to answer the often discussed and often asked question “What is art?” at least regarding its present situation in a very convincing way. Using subtle instruments he is able to express what art is, what art states and how much money art generates.


At the end of his documentary the audience will be left with some profound questions:

  • What’s reality,
  • what’s construction?

And you’ll be unknowingly led to ask:

  • What’s an image,
  • and what’s fake?

The terrific rise of the obsessive video artist, Thierry Guetta is a simulation. By caricaturing his career Banksy unmasks the mechanisms of the art-market. Guetta is almost forced to be an artist after he escorted street artists with a video camera in a nearly manic way. As he fails being a documentary movie maker he follows the advice of the master and is trying to be an artist. Being a cockalorum caught in a process of artistic adolescence he names himself “Mr. Brainwash” and drops clanger after clanger in the artistic community. Finally, unfathomably and by a nearly brilliant overestimation of his own capabilities he is getting (supposedly) successful. At the end of the movie Banksy resumes that:

„Andy Warhol forced the icons of popular culture into the shallow waters of meaninglessness. But Guetta drowned them.“


  • What are the essential messages of this documentary?
  • What is the main critic of the street art icon?

Artists got a clou unless they get famous

Becoming popular in the public space at the beginning of their development especially street art has a socio-political, nearly democratic impetus. The artists want to draw the attention to something, they want to animate the homo postmodernensis – acting high-flying, moving hastily through the town and wearing blinkers – to stop and to think. Often street art is a position against consumers‘ behaviour, capitalism, the diktat of advertisement as well as public order and is sometimes having an anarchic character.

When getting famous they are forced to adapt to the market and get into intellectual imprisonment as they are not making art by art then, but in order to satisfy their agents and collectors – well and since you’ve of course prick-eared read our „50 ultimate hints how to become a famous artist“ you’ll remember that:

„The very name Picasso is enough to have art investment fund managers and hedge fund billionaires masturbating into their spreadsheets.”

Tom Flynn, London


But: Arts got to be free

By this maxim street art is again presenting itself an idealistic example. Every street artist has the freedom to show his art wherever, whenever and how often he wants to.

  • He can paint afresh,
  • he can remove,
  • he can extent
  • or complete it.

But as soon as his art is getting between the wheels of the market the artist has to adapt to the dictation of market mechanisms. Gallery owners, collectors and trade press judge his piece of art, value it and push the artist into a niche he has to fill out. Not doing so the artists pass the mike to another one. Art is generated by individual freedom and by self-determination it has to be continued.

Art is made successful by others – artists do not have influence at this fact

There are artists only getting famous after their death. A good example is described by the art historian and journalist Stefan Koldehoff explaining the posthumous rise of a famous artist in his book “Van Gogh – myth and reality” (both links German). Some time after van Gogh died the prominent art critic Julius Meier-Graefe utilised the opus of van Gogh to propagandise Jugendstil. But it didn’t match. The Dutch post-impressionist got between the wheels of trends and was alienated for decoration purposes. Meier-Graefe tried to counteract and proclaimed van Gogh as a “Christ of Modern Times” who now was pegged as an artist only being able to hold the balance between genius and insanity by doing art.

In Banksy’s documentary the fictive artist Thierry Guetta is only found attentive ears because he was offered help by the Englishman and other street artists, the Frenchman exploited in a megalomaniac manner. Guettas fast forward rise directly led into his decline. In the movie this failure is symbolised by a collapsing wall on which the title of Guettas exhibition is written: “Life is beautiful”.

Because: Art has to maturate

A local proverb goes: „Kunst kommt von können“ (German pronunciation: [Kʊnst kɔmt fɔn ˈkœnən]) meaning literally „Art originates from ability“. This ability not only includes learning a handcraft, it also contains creativity and the talent to implement a message. The greatest and most important artwork is only often the consequence of a banal idea being packed into an artless form but, however, it explodes in our head, flushes slowly into every twist of our brain and inspires us in very different manners. An extraordinary piece of art forever stays in our head. Art needs freedom and mind, less education. Because a theoretically overfeed artist will get caught within the coordination system of

  • data,
  • facts,
  • epochs and
  • styles.

One popular definition of art is: “Art is the creative acting of human beings nature”. Art emerges of the human. Since Beuys we know that everyone is an artist but there are only some being able to articulate their inner feelings by the respective expression. But there are only few people capable of channeling simultaneously different preconditions like

  • emotional wealth,
  • the ability to be inspired,
  • fantasy,
  • leisure and also
  • experience.

This experience does not only mean acquaintanceship to life but also incidents of failure and agony. Or, as Beuys, the father of Art-Revolution used to say:

“Show your wound!”

Joseph Beuys

The artist stands not behind his piece of art anymore, but in front of it

Being anonymous most street artists and their public presentations within cityscape represent the original meaning of the artwork as it always stood in the foreground – in front of the artist. This changed in the times of personality cult at all fronts – in sport and in the media.

And postmodernism, the art epoch since the 1970s, supports this cult. Under this term an exclusive style can no longer be unified as it was the case about 100 years ago. Meta levels like myth or religion are not valid anymore. The sectionalisation of social life, the segmentation of part systems interacting with each other in different meanings and the thereby caused continuing individualisation are fragmenting the world.


Art therefore resolves into an immense variety of eras and styles sometimes coming together again in collages. An art work is no longer defined by its belonging to a style also reflecting social life but by its artist. The names of super stars like Georg Baselitz, Damien Hirst or Bruce Nauman are almost known to everyone but their work of art is much less famous. Artists like Pablo Picasso or Andy Warhol on the other hand are directly related to cubistically fragmented faces of women or Campbell’s soup can – despite their extrovert character.

So, Banksy’s documentary reassures despite the uncovering of market mechanisms leading art ad absurdum and giving idealistic art conceptions a cold shower. Because this movie yells: Everyone is an artist

„as long as he observes and moves through the world sensibly.“

Hans-Peter Feldmann

The incredible resonance on e.g. Thomas Baumgärtels Banana indicates the power one daily symbol can have. The press spoke about the “biggest Dadaistic action of art history”, about a “fruit of integration” or a “marker of modernism”. The action was called a “cryptographic sign for explorations”, because “all is bananic”.

Nowhere a message can be presented more successful than in public space. Street art is shaped democracy.


Demonstrations were yesterday, today we make art!

That’s it so far on „Exit through the Gift Shop“ – our résumé: Watch it! We answer questions, rap and hints here.

Writer: Inga Ganzer
Copyright-/Note for commercial publishers – As a reaction on the extreme position of some major publishers regarding ancillary copyright the usage of this text, text components, quotes, oder sections of this text is only accepted after written authorization from writer.


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