The Absurd and the Authentic: The case of Banksy

Banksy is in town! Or at least, Banksy’s operatives. Or someone pretending to be Banksy. Or someone imitating Banksy. Or just an ad agency. Or… Whatever. It’s all designed to promote his new film, which is all you need to know. The most honest and direct moment in Exit Through the Gift Shop comes about halfway through, shortly after the narrative takes us through the moment when Banksy went from being an infamous and mysterious street artist to a rich celebrity, selling works for hundred of thousands of dollars to celebrities like Brad Pitt. At this point, Banksy looks at the camera and remarks that it was never about the money, that it was always about the fun of street art.

At least, we are told it is Banksy, except the figure is shrouded in a hoodie, his face darkened and his voice distorted. And yes, assume it is Banksy, isn’t that exactly what we would expect him to say? Don’t they always say that, right after selling out? Sure, except Banksy has also made a film devoted to the proposition that whatever else it may be, street art is ultimately about just playing around with images, ideas, and the urban environment.

Here’s the gist of the movie: A Frenchman named Thierry Guetta who lives in LA became obsessed with filming street artists. He meets Space Invader, Borf, even Shepard Fairey, and becomes their mascot/documentarian. Eventually he meets Banksy himself, insinuated himself into the Banksy collective, and becomes his accomplice, and – Banksy apparently hopes – his Boswell. Except Guetta turns out to be someone with “mental problems and a camera,” and is eventually cast loose. But Guetta turns the tables on his mentors, reinvents himself as a street artist in his own right (named MBW – Mr. Brainwash) and mounts an insane exhibition in LA that sells a million bucks worth of Warhol and Banksy ripoffs in a matter of days.

There’s been a tremendous amount of chatter about the film, mostly focused on whether the story is “true”, whether Guetta really exists, whether Mr. Brainwash is a real artist, whether Banksy is actually behind it, etc. It’s a weird debate, since the answer is both obvious and irrelevant.

First of all, it is clear that Banksy (whoever he may be) is behind the whole thing. Guetta is too much of a fool, his utterances too Bruno-esque, for it to be anything more than a put-on. The first 2/3 of the film are played pretty straight, but by the end of it, Banksy is manifestly taking the piss out of Guetta.

But more to the point, he’s taking the piss out of the whole question of the fake and the authentic with respect to what he does. The whole “is it art?” question, applied to street art, never made any sense at all, and Banksy clearly doesn’t care one way or another how that question gets decided. He’s too busy having fun, creating stencils, creating alter-egos, and making a movie that blows up the whole question of authenticity and art. As Shepard Fairey (who almost certainly was involved in this delightful prank from the start) put it in a profile/promo for Banksy in Time: “It sums up the art world perfectly — the authentic intertwined with the absurd.”

(Cross-posted to Pottergold)


Measuring Authenticity

My friend Dan Debow, who runs a company whose business model is basically designed around Gen Y attitudes towards authenticity at work, forwarded me this item, about a consulting company that promises to be able to calculate how "authentic" something or someone is, mathematically:

Using a 360-degree method of capturing data relevant to understanding a person or organization's authenticity level, a score (also known as an Authenticity Index) can be produced that describes that person or organization's level of authenticity.

Being able to assess a person or organization’s level of authenticity goes a long way towards predicting their behavior and thus their outcomes.


Authenticity, and other excuses

One of the more gratifying (and, as often, humbling) aspects of publishing a book in the era of blogs and twitter is getting something close to real time feedback. It has already affected the way I talk about the book in interviews -- I find myself responding to criticism and helping myself to useful extensions or variations on my arguments. Here are a couple of good examples I thought you might like:

1. "Authenticity as an excuse" by Colleen, a management prof at Western. From her blog:

Our authentic selves are a collection of our personal experiences and what others tell us about ourselves.  Sometimes our understanding of ourselves is accurate, sometimes it is not. We all know what we are good at and what we aren’t good at. But sometimes we use this perception of ourselves as an excuse to resist change.

See also her excellent "Hitler was authentic", on the same blog. Wish I'd thought to write that.

2. Meanwhile, from her perch on the Mayan riviera, foodgirl asks:

Sure single-culture or single-place authenticity may be a hoax, but I think I’m staring in the face of a new authenticity. Why can’t tourists drink their faces off, belt out karaoke tunes in an “all-American sports bar” environment at a multinational hotel chain on the Mayan Riveria in celebration of Cinco de Mayo? Why not, indeed.

3. Finally, this isn't directly connected to my book but the themes are resonant: A Foucaultian take on Mad Men, which is very insightful.


Extreme Authenticity: Pork Products edition

My colleague at Maclean's magazine, Philippe Gohier, passes along the following gem:


Cultural Immersion, or Imitation?

The Authenticity Hoax was excerpted in the NZ Herald this weekend. I really like that they chose a passage from Chapter 7. It's actually my favourite chapter in the book, and the one that has gone almost completely ignored by reviewers and interviewers. It was also accompanied by a very thoughtful essay by Jim Eagles.

I'm actually not surprised that it was a NZ outlet that picked up on this chapter, given the heavy (and largely salutory) emotional and political investment in aboriginal culture and symbolism down there.



2009 was Year of "Authentic": marketing expert

Lots of terms and phrases become worn out and meaningless with overuse, no more so than in the world of marketing. In a new blog post, marketing guru Jason Cohen lists "authentic" as the number one buzzword that needs to be put to sleep:

If I had enough hubris to run around christening years, I would declare 2009 The Year of "Authentic." Enough! We get it! I respect the work of all those bloggers and Twitter-ers and lecturers and consultants who drove this word deep into our psyches. Indeed it's a tremendous gift: bringing concepts like authenticity, genuineness, and give-first-sell-later to the traditionally aggressive, non-engaging, selfish world of marketing. The more people honor this new code, the better for us all.

Nevertheless, it's time to retire words like "authentic." The misuse is to too widespread, the abuse too deep.


Fly, Little Meme

From a new column in an Australian newspaper, talking about Gordon Brown's unfortunate outburst and comparing it to the similar behaviour of the Austrlian PM:

Gordon and Kevin live in different times. Today we live in a world preoccupied with what a book recently called "The Authenticity Hoax", that is, the desire for the real, the genuine and the unrehearsed. In this world, if you are a politician and you sell yourself as a bookish Christian policy wonk or a stern pillar of Scottish rectitude and the public get it into their heads that in private you are a screaming bully, they are unlikely to be forgiving.



Corporate vs Individual Authenticity

A friend sent me an interesting post on branding authenticity at the corporate level, and how it relates to the attitudes and behaviours of individual employees of the company. The main point is that the two are barely related, and that it doesn't much matter what an employee believes or does, as long as the brand identity is upheld:

If one of your companies brand messages is "to be green" then as long as the company is upholding that promise they are being authentic, it doesn't matter that half of the employees drive Hummers and throw trash out their car window.  They are not being held to that brand ideal, the company is.

I don't necessarily agree. A serious brand needs to be delivered through all possible vectors, and it undermines the brand if employees are visibly behaving in opposition to the brand's values. Yes, there has to be room for privacy and freedom -- Pepsi employees can drink Coke at home if they like -- but it would look really bad if, for example, the parking lot at Seventh Generation was full of Hummers and the trash can by the door had Burger King wrappers spilling out of it.

Like it or not, all employees are brand ambassadors, which is why most strong corporate brands have rules about employee behaviour, even offsite. It is also why there is a serious disconnect between corporate branding and nation-branding -- unlike corporations (and totalitarian states), democratic states can't make everyone wear a uniform or hew to the party line.


Reviewed Down Under (link fixed)

Decent and helpfully critical review from The Australian.


On Marketplace

Earlier this week I taped an interview with Tess Vigeland, NPR's Marketplace show. It ran today, and you can stream it online here.


The truth about local

I live in a city, Toronto, whose nickname is "Hogtown". Why is that? Because once upon a time, there were a lot of pig slaughterhouses in the city. There aren't many anymore (there's one, downtown, that remains a sort of anti-mascot for gentrification), and that is an undeniably good thing. Slaughterhouses are filthy, they stink to high heaven, and it's no fun listening to the shrieking of the animals.

For all the revived fascination with a "local" economy, you don't hear a lot of people pining for the return of the local abbatoir. We like the idea that we're eating eggs raised on someone's rooftop down the street, and we're happy to tuck into a steak sliced off the ribs of a cow that grazed a few farms over. But the very idea that we would want to return to a time when our cities were filthy with the refuse and exhaust of an urban economy is insane.

An article in the new issue of Foreign Policy magazine absolutely nails it:

Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that "sustainable food" in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn't work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

A true local economy is an aesthetic disaster and would make our cities unliveable,  which is why around the world, "local" is actually a synonym for "poor."


Are there any hipsters in China?

Are there any hipsters in China? That’s the question David Goodman confronts in a recent article for Slate. To frame the debate, he looks at the fashion for fixed-gear bikes, and wonders why come, in a country where everyone bicycles, there is virtually no fixie movement.

The question is, I think, at least semi-facetious, but it is a good way of getting at the real issue, which is whether there is any kitsch in China, and if so, of what sort. The conclusion is that while there is kitsch of a sort (Mao kitsch, in particular), there is no ironic playing with the signs and symbols of poverty, which is so central to the hipster worldview. Goodman has this great quotation from a sociology prof who says, "There is a saying in Chinese: 'Laugh at the poor, not the prostitutes,'".

By this, I gather he means that in China, the shame is in being poor, not in how you make your money. In such a culture, there is no room for nostalgie de la boue, there’s only the absolute shame of the dirt on your pants. You simply can’t “play” with being poor, because no one will get it.

Is this an accurate take on Chinese culture? I have no idea. One possibility is that China is still at an earlier stage of economic development, where conspicuous consumption has not yet become conspicuous authenticity. Once China gets rich enough, and bikes get scarce enough, the kids will get with the insta-irony/nostalgia/hipster/kitsch program.

Another possibility is that there is no romantic strain in Chinese culture that could underwrite a counter-progress movement, even an ironic one. In which case, China’swill always be a far more straightforwardly materialistic society than ours here in the West, since they don’t share any of the shame about consumption and brands that motivates so much hipster irony.  Again, I don’t know enough about Chinese culture to know. Anyone have any thoughts? Send me an email.

Meanwhile, this story might serve as a counterexample to the entire thesis.


Branding Jiu-Jitsu

My essay on the ten-year anniversary of No Logo, originally published in CB Magazine, has been published in the May issue of Reason Magazine:

The Revenge of the Brands

How corporate America turned Naomi Klein’s anti-branding manifesto on its head


Spotted in Halifax


Meet the Meat

One of the best parts of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is the scene when they finally make it to the restaurant, just in time for the universe to, er, end. Ford and Zaphod and Arthur and Trillian are starving of course, having not eaten for millions of years. And so they're invited to chat with the animal upon which they'll be dining, the animal having been bread to actually want to be slaughtered for food.

Absurd? Satirical? Nope. New York! Welcome to the latest, and most logical extension, of the locavore craze that is sweeping parts of the nation. Welcome to the Edible Cattle Exchange: You buy "shares" in a local cow named Bessie or maybe Samantha, she grazes placidly on a farm near Ithaca, until one day -- well, you know what happens:

And then, every other week, High Point will make the 250-mile drive from Ithaca to the East Village, where your dividends will be delivered in the form of steaks, ground beef and, yes, even hot dogs. And as part of the investment package, you'll get an option on farm-raised chicken and pig. Consider it good diversification.