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Power Perceived

April 29, 2010

After seeing Banksy’s utterly fantastic film Monday night, Exit Through the Gift Shop, (which was pretty much perfect in every way) I was left thinking about the difference between perceived power and real power. Though on the surface the movie is about street art (graffiti, for the uninitiated), its themes deeply resonate at every level of political interaction because it portrays the basic, philosophic, and almost ethical competition between doing something for its own sake (and thereby seeking excellence in doing the activity more than anything) and doing something for the sake of how it is perceived by others (and thereby seeking the fame, wealth, or power that results from having influence over others). In this case, it’s art for art’s sake vs. art made for an audience (and thus, really, for oneself).  The former approach is symbolized by Banksy’s provocative and deep political artwork that was later sold almost as an afterthought, while the latter was embodied in the often insipid, mercenarily-designed and mass-produced works of Thierry Guetta (d/b/a Mr. Brain Wash).

By way of a not-so-brief synopsis…

Ironically enough, Thierry only got into the world of street art as a result of his obsessive attempt to capture everything (on video camera), while street art was something that was almost necessarily evaded capture, in more than one sense. The street art world realized they needed a Thierry around to capture their most ephemeral art, and let him in to see how it was done. All except Banksy…at first. From that moment, it was Ahab realizing the identity of his Moby-Dick. Thierry relentlessly chased after the world’s greatest street artist, but the film makes it more or less clear that the art had far less to do with Thierry’s obsession than the thrill of the chase and the narcotic of illicitness that surrounded street art.

Of course the two do meet (would there be a film otherwise), and have some capers because Banksy, as an artist, did want to share his work with the world, not just the 10-15 people who would recognize it as such before the authorities could sweep his subversiveness under the rug (an image he uses in his art to great effect. E.g.,


That act of sharing with the world is of course a mild form of selfishness in that one’s own ideas are exalted above others’, but that is a selfishness that can be acknowledged as legitimate desire to communicate ideas owing to the importance of the ideas, not the importance of the self.  Note that Banksy doesn’t sign his works, and where he represents himself at all it is through the visage of a friendly looking rat that evokes a latently disproportionate degree of fright amongst his targets, fittingly enough.  Moreover, in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy continues to hide his image and distorts his voice, thereby keeping his cause in the realm of the ideas. Meanwhile, Thierry has no problem glorifying himself through excessive public display because his own cause is himself.

Starting to see the political overtones?  Well, if you are not afraid of the spoilers that are attendant to any comprehensive critical review, read on…

When Banksy realizes that Theirry doesn’t have grand plans to bring the art he meticulously captures to the world–i.e., that Thierry’s video-taping obsession is personal and ultimately consumptive in nature–Banksy takes action and gets the tapes to put out the film himself by urging Thierry to go out and make some of his own art. Here, Banksy’s motivations are clear as ever: it’s all about the art, and communicating that art to the world. Thierry, conversely seeking renown and adulation for himself, sets off to produce “art” with his own glory in mind: stickers of himself behind his characteristic camera that he posts all around town. Thierry has realized that his own personal promotion through art, though selfishly enjoyable enough, could be elevated to such a higher plane. He had observed the very best street artists from around the world, and realized that he had enough connections and bravado–if only dim understanding of actual art–to cast himself as such an artist. Needless to say, his products are just about the most convincing pieces of crap one could create with high-quality hired guns and no amanuensis.  Mostly derivative, mass-produced for mass-consumption, and designed to create a perception that each piece qualifies as art more than to create any commentary, his works fill a gigantic show that brings in a record number of eager attendees, lured in by hype, mystery, and promises of a free “limited edition” print.

Since Thierry had some excellent hired help and a very convincing set of fakery, since Thierry eschewed artistic control in favor of entertaining the media that would get his show advertised, and since his audience has the same inability to recognize or appreciate actual art, one can guess how things end up for Thierry: he becomes the force of nature he advertised himself as.  Perceived power becomes real power.  Banksy aptly summarizes the implications of Thierry’s success:

Maybe it means art is a bit of a joke.

As I said before, the real brilliance of the film lies in the thesis’ broad applicability to all things political because politics is quite simply the art of human interaction.  Truth about people is truth about people everywhere.  People can come together to extol virtue, to communicate ideas, to reappropriate each others’ love, money, and devotion to themselves, as well as anything in between.  The scary thing is that now the level of governmental politics is so damned professional that the power wielded by individual politicians (who are now the embodiments and sum totals of various political movements and ideas) can be generated solely by establishing a mere appearance of legitimacy. Moreover, that means that the perceived power qua real power is ripe for abuse and distension. Because broadcasting enough fake power creates real power, sheer momentum is sending our political institutions into spiraling into extremism and absolutism, largely as a result of the mob’s general captivation by sensationalism and demagoguery.  Money, hype, attention, power.  Though they all converge in today’s media economy as a matter of political fact, of course they all intersect on the poster child of what’s wrong with American politics: Sarah Palin.

Nowadays, for both poles of the political spectrum but especially for the right, politics is a business—the entertainment business. The freak show, as Mark Halperin termed it, has been turned into a fully merchandised product. It was Fox’s Roger Ailes who had the insight that the American right was an underserved market, one with a powerful kind of brand loyalty. Fox News has turned a disaffected segment of the populace into a market, with the fervor and idiosyncratic truth standards of a cult. Wingnut-ism has been monetized, is one admittedly partisan way of looking at it. Palin stokes the disaffection of her constituents and then, with the help of Fox, offers to heal them, for a price. And—surprise—they’re more affluent than most Americans. Fifty-six percent make over $50,000 a year, according to a Times/CBS poll. Running for president is no doubt part of her business model. But forget elections (as many Palin supporters already seem to have done); she’s already the president of an alternative America—and also its CEO.

That is precisely why political actors are as carefully managed as any commercial brand.  Political power is all about forcing the palatability of an idea upon a population by creating the image of widespread acceptance and even inevitability.  When attempting to obtain the support of the masses it helps to marginalize each individual by making them insecure in thinking that they are the outsider in failing to appreciate some core insight or that they need not ensure the validity of that leader’s ideas, since “surely, someone else will check on it.”  Tocqueville identified this as the tyranny of the majority.  To put it even more simply, think of the Emperor’s new clothes: does anyone feel like that little boy when they see the crowds’ roaring approval of some total dolt?  That’s the goal.

Do these look so far afield for a candidate with only personality, not ideas?

Shouldn’t they?  Maybe politics is a bit of a joke.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Da Arab permalink
    April 30, 2010 4:11 am

    Forgot who said it, but I recall from one of the few classes I made it to at law school, this little gem (paraphrased): the appearance of justice is just as important as the administration of actual justice. It seems you’re saying the appearance may be more important. Maybe justice is a joke. Or we’re just a stumbling mass of creatures prone to self-destruction because we’re intelligent, sure, just not smart enough, especially when it comes to groups.


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