THE relationship of street art to the commercial art world has always been a tricky one. In the past few years, as street art has exploded from variations on fat- lettered graffiti to sophisticated murals and stencils, works by its top practitioners have sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars: a far cry from such art’s usually subversive origins. But whereas many street artists now create work expressly for galleries, starting out—and, often, continuing—in the trenches of “outside” art is what gives them credibility and, ironic as it is, market legitimacy.
Which is why one of the most famous street artists is also one of the most controversial. Thierry Guetta, aka “Mr Brainwash” or “MBW”, got his start by befriending and filming some of the world’s top street artists, including Banksy, an elusive Brit famous for hanging spoof paintings at the Tate Britain and painting whimsical scenes on Israel’s West Bank separation wall. At some point Banksy suggested Mr Guetta do some graffiti of his own. As chronicled in “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, a documentary that Banksy subsequently made about Mr Guetta (using some of Mr Guetta’s own footage), the French artist moved quickly from pasting up stencils on walls to paying a large team of elves to churn out pop art en masse. The film is now on the longlist to be nominated for an Oscar. Mr Guetta’s good connections helped his first show, in Los Angeles in 2008, attract massive crowds and ring up prodigious sales; his second, in New York, buoyed by the film, stayed open for nine months. Last October one work sold at auction in London for £75,650 ($118,513), including commission and taxes, nearly four times the top estimate.
Earlier this month he held his third show in Miami. A few minutes walk from the Art Basel fest, he rented a disused building taking up an entire city block on Collins Avenue, the main drag, which he filled with giant collages, man-sized aerosol cans painted like Campbell’s soup tins, Victorian portraits retouched with Batman-style masks, psychedelic Warholian prints of Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, and other outsize kitsch. With the doors opening in the evening and closing in the small hours, it was as much a party as a show or, as Mr Guetta himself proudly called it, “a circus”.
Street artists, who themselves had put up Art Basel fringe shows, in the less glamorous inner-city neighbourhood of Wynwood, tend to take a dim view. “Thierry might be the only one who’s in this because it’s about money and fame,” says Michael “R.J.” Rushmore, the editor of Vandalog, a blog about street art. “I think it’s a funny footnote,” says Marsea Goldberg, a Los Angeles gallerist who has nurtured many street artists. “It’s great performance art…it’s not maybe the deepest thing, but the whole thing is entertaining.” And the high auction prices? “A lot of people that are into hype, [who] just love silliness.”
Debating the merits of his work is easy, and somewhat sterile. Explaining his motives is more complex. Mobbed by enthusiastic visitors to the show—some of them other artists—Mr Guetta revelled in not taking his work seriously, chuckled at people who were intensely scrutinising an array of upended buckets that he had created to serve as seats and tables, and took sheer delight at a child riding a bicycle over one of his exhibits. One of his mottoes is “art for the people”, and while quoting a healthy six-figure price to an inquiring collector, he seemed to care about the money chiefly as a symbol of his success at upstaging the conventions of the art establishment. “I believe my art will be worth millions of dollars. Like Andy Warhol? It will go even bigger than that.”