Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jeff: Inspiration: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Hi all, thought I'd take this chance to share a recent inspiration. Have you guys seen Banksy's Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop? If not, I highly recommend it. As soon as it was over there was nothing I wanted to do more than grab my laptop and get back to my revision. Gotta love a piece of art that can do that.

For those who haven't heard about it, Exit Through the Gift Shop follows filmmaker Thierry Guetta as he shadows street artists like Shepard Fairey, Space Invader and Banksy to record their work and methods. These are all artists who work (for the most part) outside the usual art world of museums, galleries and auctions and focus on putting their art out in public spaces, generally without permission. The work consists of spray painted graffiti, wheat pasted prints, stickers, mosaics, etc. and runs the gamut from the aggressively political to the surreal and whimsical. (For a good street art gallery check out Streetsy. For a look at Banksy's work go here. )

There's alot to like here. First, you get an exciting peek at these artist's processes as they dart around cities trying to put up pieces of art while staying one step ahead of the police. There's something incredibly pure about it all. These are artists doing what they do not because they lust for money and fame (few get either) but because they love what they do and they want people to see it. They're incredibly talented people that simply want to communicate with, challenge or delight groups of total strangers for the short period of time before the authorities appear and remove their work.

Now, I know that this has been said many times before, but heck, I for one can always use reminding...as a writer it's easy to get caught up in advances and bestseller lists and prizes and reviews and who's got the mos twitter followers and blog followers and facebook friends. Happens to me all the time. And I'm not saying that all of that stuff isn't important in its way, it's just great to see a movie like this and be reminded that the focus should be as simple as making something that you think is cool and getting it in front of others in hopes they'll think it's cool too. Everything else is secondary. This is a point the later half of the movie drives home pretty hard when it goes into great detail about what happens when an artist puts commerce way ahead of the work. Scary stuff.

Have you guys seen the movie? What did you think? Any thoughts on the "is it all a prank?" questions surrounding the film?


  1. The advantage of museums and galleries (and publishers) is that the people who want your art are the ones who consume it. The disadvantage of street art is that if the property owner doesn't want it, he has to actually pay, with time and/or money, to remove it. The artist is handing him an expense. Banksy's stuff is relatively high-brow, so people think it's cool (I personally like his work), but how is it different from those overwrought, unintelligible graffiti bubble letters (that are usually the artist's handle)? When does something cross over from subversive to nuisance?

  2. Yeah, it can be a tricky idea. Graffiti Vs. Street art. Who says what's art and what's vandalism? What are the criteria? I guess that's one of the things I find so interesting about it all. It draws people into having those sorts of discussions and one person's opinion about all that is just as good as anyone else's.

    You could say that the problem of confining art to museums and galleries is that it keeps the art viewership among a particular group-people who chose to and can afford to go museums and galleries. Street art instead engages people where they are and can hit a totally different audience. Some will be annoyed, some will be delighted. The ethics of all that are interesting too.

    Alot of this is easy in Banksy's case since his work is identifiable as art and he's been so embraced by the high art world. It's trickier and maybe more interesting for the lesser known folk.

    Thanks for coming by Elizabeth!

    Anyway, I got no answers. I'd love to hear what y'all think!

  3. Hey Jeff, interesting post. I did like the movie and it did raise some really interesting points about art and its nature.

    However I am not so enthralled by street art. It seems that most of the practitioners are no different from that which they purport to oppose. In the end they are simply creating a brand with the goal of making money or fame (just like Pepsi or Nike). They can play to their anti-establishment roots all they like but Bansky and Fairie haven't turned down any of the money best I can tell. (It would be interesting to see what Banksy would do if you went to one of his shows, started pasting posters on his paintings and claiming they were now your art so you could take the money.)

    I am also unconvinced that the vandalism is part of the art. At best the goal of the vandalism seems to be to promote your brand at another's expense (as was pointed out in the comment above) and at worst its just for the thrill and less for the art. I don't think true art requires an audience to be true. While it is sad that society rarely recognizes its geniuses in their own time, I take comfort from knowing that art is getting made now in obscurity that will transform us in the future. And even if it is never discovered, that it was created is enough. In my mind the true underground art movement would be to convince everyone to make and consume the art that moves them regardless of its current cachet.

  4. I think the problem there is that we're judging the art form and it's connection to commerce by the people who became rich, accepted and powerful, namely fairey and banksy. I'm no expert of course, but I think there are likely far more people out there who just want to put their stuff out in front of people and who will never make the money or be as famous as those guys. So who's art form is it then? Banksy's or some kid you've never heard of?

    As to the vandalism/art connection. I guess it depends on the intent. Right? I would think that alot of the folk's goal is to provoke or challenge and they feel they can't do that in a controlled setting like a gallery. You also can't really surprise and possibly delight someone in a gallery the way you can in the street where the art is unexpected. Or maybe the idea is to provoke the exact discussion we're having, namely, is it art at all? Does it have worth? Is it different from branding and advertising. It seems to me to have that discussion, which is a part of the art, it helps to put your art in that public setting.

    I'm curious, did you take the film as a Banksy prank or did you take it at face value?

    Thanks for coming by pal

  5. Hey Jeff, good points. I guess it is hard to judge something as nebulous as "street art" without some definitions but then you will inevitably omit something in the act of defining. So yeah we can omit Bansky and Fairly but since they are the faces of street art, to me that seems a bit like talking impressionism w/o Monet. However lets assume they are the sellouts and they took what was pure and made it dirty with money.

    Still I would say the philosophy that defines street art is an attack on the corporate ownership of the public viewshed. The art challenges the idea that just because you can afford a billboard and I can't doesn't mean that you have a greater right to display your message. Superficially this has appeal but I think it breaks down with deeper consideration and doesn't provide the democratization of art that one would hope. To achieve this goal street artists violate conventional standards of property ownership - they take space that they do not own. However, property ownership is not really the problem they are fighting, since I would imagine that most street artists must still admit some standard of personal property. So this leads to a problem where the subjective assessment of the art is used as the justification for the violation of personal property (which no one opposes). In other words - I can deface your billboard because I am making "art" on your advertisement = my message > your message so I am justified. This becomes a sliding scale in which the violation of a mutually agreed upon principal (personal property) is justified by a purely subjective standard defined by only one party for their personal gain. It essentially boils down to bullying - I am doing this bc you can't stop me. So I would have to say that it needs to be done in such a way that challenges the corporate domination of public space (and provides the unexpected surprise you reference above) while at the same time respecting personal property (since we all agree on this). But like I said before, I think for some, the rush of breaking the law and harming people is part of the appeal. Whew... OK I think I have gone on enough about that...

    As to the movie. I kinda knew about the controversy before I saw it so I was looking at it with a bit of skepticism from the get go. In the end I am not sure if it matters if Bansky was in on it or as duped as he comes across - the real interesting part for me was to see the complete inability of the art insiders to apply any type of external metric to the value of the art. Even if it was all a hoax, those paintings still sold to real people for 10s of 1000s of dollars.

  6. I'm hesitant to jump into the fray here, but the flick's been sitting in my netflix queue for quite some time and after following along yesterday, last night seemed as good a time as any to take it in.

    I think both of you make excellent points. But, I think the heart of Jeff's post was about how he was inspired - and that's where I think the real point of the film lays. It's hard to find fault with Ken's well thought out argument, however I think the one thing he neglects to consider is the value of the anarchistic act. We depend on certain individuals to challenge the mutually agreed upon principles of society. They are innovators whose ability (or willingness) to confront social assumptions (usually at great risk) often results in changes in how we interact with the world we live in. I suspect it's easiest to see these advancements in the realm of technology, but the same impulse has revolutionized all facets of life. I'm not suggesting that complete anarchy is the cure for all our ills, but I do think we rely on a small percentage of the population to sit at the fringe and scream, "Fuck you!" as loudly as possible. And while some individuals may suffer because of it, the benefit to society as a whole is far greater than any pain that's caused. Because that giant middle finger is awful inspiring - it's proof that we all approach life a little differently, think "outside the box" if you will, and that we are each unique individuals who can exert control on the world around us. No wonder Jeff was moved to hit the keyboard afterward - we all need to be reminded of our own potential.

    So, obviously, I think the whole thing was a prank. I think the tell tale is in the film's first credit - I can't remember the construction, but it's something like "A film by Banksy" or "A Banksy Film" - either way, Banksy takes responsibility for it. He seems to be saying "I'm the ultimate artist because I can make an artist out of this dim-witted buffoon and you will buy it." He challenges the notion that art is defined by the viewer and asserts that art is defined by the artist. You've heard of meta-theater, welcome to meta-art. I'm not sure I agree with him - but I certainly think there's value in putting the idea out there. Viva La Revolucion!

  7. Thanks for diving in Dave. I was too intimidated by Ken's erudition.

    I get the private property argument and agree with it in principal, I'm not against private property, but like you say, the anarchic act has value. I also have this part of me that wonders if in the grand scheme of things what these artists are doing is that much of an assault. Maybe that's lame when discussing such a principled stand, but I just can't get very worked up over the level of "harm" inflicted. Maybe if this was vandalism of people's private homes I'd be more bothered, but for me a relatively minor harm to a large corporation or government is balanced out by the benefit of the art in the public space.

    I figure this is all a hoax as well. The narrative arc of the Thierry character just seemed a little too neat and conventionally dramatic for me to believe it was real.

    Yeah, it certainly says alot about how people will happily pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for some astoundingly crappy art just cause it's endorsed by two famous dudes.

    Oh if you want to see a doc that has none of this kind of narrative arc, I'd recommend Restrepo, which follows one army unit in a remote part of Afghanistan. It's by Sebastian Junger and nominated for an Oscar as well.

    Thanks for all the comments people. I think these discussions were far far more interesting than my actual post!

  8. I'm with you Jeff. Much of what was shown in the doc didn't seem to be too damaging... in fact, most of it was in spaces that were essentially blank canvasses already... so I'm not sure how much harm was involved. But I also think it's one thing to wax philosophical and quite another to have some guy spray paint Andre the Giant on your house. Like most things, it's all pretty relative I suppose. Still, even though I found most of the guys in the film rather douchey, I find myself inspired by the rebellious spirit and would hate to see it squashed.

    Yeah... you've recommended Restrepo before and god knows I love me some Sebastian Junger. It's queued up - I've just got to find the time when Lisa and the kids aren't around - it doesn't sound like she would appreciate it (and while they would, I'm betting she wouldn't appreciate them seeing it.) As with all things... soon, soon.

  9. I saw the movie, enjoyed it, and wondered how much of it was "real." I heard one of the producers of the film address the controversy on Talk of the Nation on NPR. He was very convincing about the entire thing being in earnest.

    He claimed that by the time he and Banksy got involved, Terry's show was just about to go up, and they were totally caught off guard by the massive attention it was getting. So they were scrambling to get that covered at the same time they were trying to construct a story from part of the massive amount of footage that Terry had shot (and never really intended to make a documentary with.) They came in at the middle and built the story in both directions.

    If the whole thing was a hoax, that producer should get an Academy Award for acting. His details about the creative process of making the film would have been really hard to manufacture, let alone talk about so easily in a Q & A format.

    But, hey, I've been fooled before :)

  10. Oh dear, Thierry, not Terry. My high school French teacher would be appalled.

  11. As to the movie. I kinda knew about the controversy before I saw it so I was looking at it with a bit of skepticism from the get go.

    generic viagra