Banksy “Documentary” at Battelle Film Club

In Uncategorized on 111021 at 1936


I am not going to say much about this film. It speaks for itself. Every work of art speaks for itself, right? Don’t answer that.

I recently started meditating, and so have been learning about the variety of Eastern philosophy. I have been quite surprised at how united these beliefs are in a certain central concept, Non-duality, which is to say, if I may appropriate a quote: “Let it Be”, or perhaps: “Don’t worry, be happy”.
This concept is in total contradiction with the history of Western thought. Going back to the ancient Greeks, our society, and thus the way we in the West have learned to approach the world, is fundamentally one of debate. Sometimes this is described with the obtuse word, “dialectics”. You might say science, itself, is less of a process of proving things as they are than it is one of distinguishing, differentiating. “Is” vs “is not” is at the heart of Western thought. We want to unlock the mechanics of the universe with this science stuff, and it is the binary logic of mathematics that enables us to try to do this.
In linguistics and literary theory, there is a concept called “hermeneutics”, an even worse obtuse word! (I always cringe when I hear that… does the person who utters the word “hermeneutics” truly expect you, the listener, to tacitly understand what they’re talking about?) Well, I won’t be so irresponsible or arrogant; I’ll tell you – hermeneutics is just that – it is the phenomenon of interpretation, wherein the meaning of something predominantly depends on what the worldview and experience is of the person who is doing the interpreting. The best example is biblical interpretation. The entire sixty-something books of the Jewish Talmud is a tit-for-tat back-and-forth report of a whole assortment of historical Rabbis, one after the other, interpreting the Jewish law one way, then interpreting things another way, then another, then another. The whole purpose of such an endeavor is to try and understand explicitly and truthfully what the author meant. My interpretation — of these sorts of endless interpretations – is that it all comes down to opinions.
But I bring this up because, as you experience art, or any medium of communication for that matter, it is useful to consider the author, the originator. It is useful to do this, but it is not essential.
In two weeks, on November 1, our next film we will show here at the Battelle Film Club is “F for Fake”. It is only a coincidence that we are showing it back-to-back with “Exit through the Gift Shop”; Orson Welles’ final film is a lyrical, exotic, persuasive, entertaining film specimen, unlike anything else, although admittedly many reviews of “Exit through the Gift Shop” mention it as a blatant inspiration. Anyway, it is an essay about authenticity. At the same time it is a magic trick, a masterpiece of editing. It is a shame we are not showing it first.

Now back to my highbrow lecture, bear with me. Let’s talk about academia. At least in the social sciences, in the West, professors make an entire career on dialectics and hermeneutics: debating, describing with analogy, drawing lines, creating categories, breaking up older categories, employing contrast, etc. While not every academic would be cool to call it this, I’d like to call it all: “criticism”.

And now, here is the center of what I’m saying: there is a sinister word haunting Western society currently: “Postmodernism”. The very negational act of naming it has completely shrouded its meaning, at the same time as being an example of its own method. But it’s everywhere, in every intellectual publication.
But before I try to define, and tie in “Postmodernism” with the movie we will, in a moment, get to watch; let’s go back to “criticism”. In a wide range of disciplines, in the arts, in philosophy, in sociology, linguistics, political science; professors are steeped in a contemporary trend called “critical theory”. This encompasses things like the aforementioned “hermeneutics”, it encompasses theories of inequality (that of gender bias, ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation), it dwells on “post-structuralism”, and “deconstructionism”, unreadable authors like Foucault and Lacan, Judith Butler. In essence, through all these big words and concepts, the academics have tried to capture the essence – the very meaning – of a thing, as though it were universal.

Then along came the Dada-ists. They challenged the world with “anti-art”, challenging you with the possibility that a thing might have NO meaning. In return, once modernism caught on, academics tried to delve into this supposedly meaningless work CRITICALLY. They appropriated big words like “hermeneutics”, and thus gave it meaning.
Then came Fluxus. “Happenings”. Get out of the art gallery, art is an EXPERIENCE, it cannot be commodified or auctioned. Of course the critics cerebralized that, too. And people started to put a ticket price on that too, admission.
Then came the Situationists. Hugely influencing the rebellious artists of our upcoming documentary, that art movement took absurdity further, in order to promote their Marxist politics. They also took the “Happenings” of the Fluxus movement deeper, and out onto the street itself, by creating artistic SITUATIONS in public, often ephemeral, much like the “flash mobs” of today. They purported that art is not art unless you live it and experience it. It cannot be frozen on a canvas, captured, and replicated; its meaning does not come from its critique. The statement it makes is inherent in the experience.
Of course the academic theoreticians and critics assembled a vocabulary to talk about that, too.
Yet every artist has a heartfelt intent behind each work, the thing that compels them to create (and as we see in this movie, sometimes dangerously). Hermeneutics asks whether that matters; what YOU bring to a piece of work, as an interpreter, as an EXPERIENCER, your mindset makes much of the artist’s intent moot.
But a good artist is like a good prankster – they trick you into experiencing their art a certain way, based on an expectation of what your worldview might be. In this movie you will observe so-called “street artists” at work (note the great difference from graffiti); these clever vandals have become well-known now and accepted as a historic episode of art (by the academics and critics, of course), primarily because they excelled at setting you up for a particular experience, much like a good comedian. I think it is fair for me to assert that the topic of their art is largely political; that is, they are coercing you to think a certain way.
Here’s where that troublesome phrase, postmodernism, comes in. The street artists, as with nearly every contemporary artist that the academics and CRITICS talk about today, are not only trying to get you to think a certain way. They are trying to get you to think a certain way about the process of trying to get you to think a certain way. Postmodernism, although it is an elusive phrase with many meanings, often applies to the use of the artistic devices of irony, ambiguity, and lack of finality in order to establish a sort of circularity, a tedious or even arrogant self-referencing that aims to lead critics on a wild goose chase, or to trap them in a contradiction. In essence, postmodern artists are actually just practitioners of “late modernism”, which is still the same thing Dada and Surrealism and Situationism ever were – the subversion of rigorous scientific meaning that has commodified not only art but also the art’s supposed meaning… you might say that Postmodernism is a “questioning of authority”. Such artists hope that we will be like the Buddhists, and accept each experience as it happens, as it is, without judging it, without speculations.

Please, as you watch and enjoy this excellently-told story as it unfolds, think about the author. Ask yourself, who is Banksy? You are given a glimpse of a person who may actually be the elusive “street artist” Banksy; but then remember, it is Banksy who is making this movie. What methods would Banksy use if he were to make a movie?

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