This seems to be my week for movie reviews, although this one could hardly be considered timely. Fabian, Craig and I watched “Exit Through the Gift Shop” last night, and I thought it was fantastic, not least of all for the way it skewered the consumption of art in modern (that is to say capitalist) society. It is meant to be a documentary (or at least presents itself that way) about a guy, Thierry, who fell in with a bunch of people in the street art scene due to his relentless filming of everything, everywhere. Supposedly he then hooks up with Banksy, follows him for a bit documenting his art, then presents his edited work about the art scene, which turns out to be a mess. In a reversal of layers and roles, Banksy takes all the footage and decides to make the film about the guy who was making the film about him, and tells the guy to go back to LA. Apparently inspired by Banksy, the guy sells everything he owns and starts making (highly derivative but silly fun) art himself. He then wrangles himself a bunch of publicity, some public accolades by Banksy and another street artist, Shepard Fairey, and ultimately an LA Weekly article about him and his upcoming show. The buzz thus generated, the show does exceedingly well and establishes Thierry (now called, if you can believe this, “Mr. Brainwash”) as a major new force in the art world (specifically those interested in street art/graffiti). Along the way are some fascinating mini interviews from people at the show (ostensibly interested in art) commenting on the brilliance of Mr. Brainwash’s work, and one supposes cementing themselves as part of the vanguard of cool.
It was pretty obvious that almost the entire film is a brilliant prank, but some people believe Mr Brainwash to be genuine. The sequence of “documentary” footage alone makes it obvious that one would never have the ability to recreate his story after the fact. But I love the way this film messes with people. It forces all kinds of questions into the light of day. Questions about the nature of art and most particularly the nature of art in a consumption obsessed society like ours. I personally believe that true art can’t be for sale, at least not by the artist who made it with the intent to make a living off of it. People can make all manner of beautiful, clever item with varying functional purpose, but as soon as the primary goal of making it is to sell it, it loses whatever critical value (in our society) that it could possibly have. It has been co-opted by the very system it seeks to critique. But then, this is my definition of art, you may have another. And let’s face it, it is particularly grotesque that a form of art which is also a form of vandalism (street art) should be subsumed by a ravenous consumer culture, ever on the lookout for the next new thing.
And just to be clear, I am in no way disparaging or discounting all manner of beautiful or thoughtful or skillful thing that are routinely offered up for sale. The world would be a much sadder place without these things (although the definitions of these likewise vary wildly). It is just to say that in order to fully critique the society in which we live, one can not then turn around and give oneself up to, bend over for, or bask in the very thing we are criticizing, can we?