28 April 2010

Labor of Love of Labor

It occurred to me while watching the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop, that labor is one of the only qualities an artist cannot insert artificially into her work. Invested time cannot be faked on the cellular level, the level of the art's effect on the artist. Labor is not a quality that appears in any measurable sense in a finished work, or course, but it does, I think, have a permanent developmental effect on the creator. The transformative power of extensive personal effort is an ineffable but vital component of most interesting pieces. For one, investing a huge chunk of your life in something is the surest way of developing a style that combines the best qualities of intellect and instinct. One artist's style can be faked by another of course, but this is beside the point. I am only interested in what is happening to the artist in the process of laboring to earn that style.

Very few street artists, I think, would be satisfied with contracting their ideas and effort out to someone else ... at least not until they were on the FBI's most wanted list. But this added sense of danger -- the fact that street artists labor under a self-imposed, illicit pressure -- only adds to the mystery and aura of their pieces. From the first frames onward, "Exit..." feeds us a number of images of a subculture deeply passionate about the physical labor inherent in its product. I found myself judging every single image as it rushed past me based almost entirely on this one quality: how much time and effort did the artist invest and risk to pull this off? The actual technical quality of the work was of secondary importance, though not negligible. So when I saw an image of a few people spraying haphazard streams of paint at a passing metro train, I dismissed them. But when the next image appeared of a man pulling himself up to an otherwise inaccessible rooftop space to paint a tiny logo he had been perfecting for years, I applauded. And then of course, there is Banksy's work, which is anything but improvised or ill-considered...

Labor -- invested, directed work -- is an ingredient we feel powerfully in a work of street art. We cannot see it, exactly, but we intuit its presence based on its composition and location. And when confronted by a freshly wet piece of art dripping from the wall to the the sidewalk, or from the streetsign to the road below, these works emit an aura that stings us, and makes us think "that's really good" or "that's insane" well before we think "that's illegal". I cannot think of a more powerful compliment than this.

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