Does anyone remember Milli Vanilli? The pop group consisted of two gorgeous dread-locked singer/dancers who earned a Grammy Award for their debut album in 1990. The immense popularity of their music did them no good, however, when it was discovered that the front men were actually lip syncing to the music of several other singers who were deemed unmarketable by the developer of the group, Frank Farian. When the boys were outted, their Grammy was taken away and all their platinum records were for naught- they became a joke and their music, once deemed better than Mick Jagger’s, was condemned. Being fairly young, I never really understood why the backlash was so fierce. The music hadn’t changed, and, really, weren’t the awards, and wasn’t their popularity, about the music? No one likes to feel duped, we all want to be in on the joke, be in the know, and that is why Mr. Brainwash is such an interesting figure in the art scene today.
Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash, has been in the news again recently due to his massive “Art Show 2011” which opened on Christmas day 2011 after months of planning for only a few days (the show was extended by about a week, but the original intention was to close before the new year). Ever since Guetta was thrust into the public consciousness as the central figure in Banksy’s Academy Award nominated ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop,’ more questions than answers have surrounded his personality and his artistic accomplishments. Controversy over his authenticity as an artist and as a character have consumed most writers covering his shows and his story, but what is the question? Here is a man, and all investigations have shown him to be pretty much who he claims to be, who creates visual materials. The visual constructions are influenced (VERY clearly) but are original and are well received by massive audiences who find connections to the works and connections between his works and a genre of art that while still considered ‘outsider’ is gradually receiving more and more institutional support and validation. Clearly he is making art.
So, the questions: is someone else making the works for him? Is he really an artist? Is he working with a group? Is this all a hoax? Are pretty much moot, because, in the end, art is being made under his name, that art is being viewed and has an effect on those viewers, on the market, and on the genre. I posit that who he is doesn’t really matter because who he is (and pretty much who any artist is) becomes who the audience wants him to be.
Charles Horton Cooley’s famous postulation of the looking glass self, although a sociological theory, is something I find very useful when thinking about the roles of artist and viewer. Cooley finds that the personality is in part structured through the individual’s interaction with others, that we structure ourselves around the person we see reflected by the people we meet. Therein, if I meet a man on the street who immediately treats me with suspicion and malice, I imagine his view of me as someone who is threatening and thereafter take a piece of that impression with me as a part of my own personality. We unconsciously construct our own personalities out of what we imagine others to perceive us to be. Artist and viewer affect each other in much the same way, the art is determined in part by the viewer, the artist’s intentions with her work mingling with the perceived intentions that the viewer imposes on his imagination of the artist as a personality and those together and multiplied by the tens, hundreds, thousands of viewers of the work, create the message and meaning of the work of art.
So, what does this have to do with Mr. Brainwash? My point is just to say that the artist and who he “really” is has very little bearing on the art work and its reception, it is the idea of the artist (and the controversy surrounding his personal voracity is a part of that, I suppose) and the impression of the art work by the viewer that determine the usefulness and artistry of the works he creates. Judging by the massive appeal of his work, the huge audiences, community of artists, and sales, I would say that ultimately there is no question. Personally I love to see the enthusiasm Guetta brings to the arts, the enjoyment and freedom he embodies and the sense of community he encourages in his shows. Those traits are worth finding a place for him in the canon.