Sunday, January 30, 2011

Exit Through The Gift Shop - Review

Language is an imperfect model of reality. Often times we use words to approximate broad, vague and elusive concepts, and those words often aren't up to the task. Justice Potter Stewart famously quipped about pornography that "You cannot say exactly what it is, but you know it when you see it." You could make a similar statement about many other words; religion, postmodernism, personhood, art. These things have realities associated with them that we are all aware of, but often their boundaries are difficult to precisely delineate. And if this is true for art, it's especially true for modern art.

After all much of modern art consists of cultural symbols, found objects, ideas, sounds, and images remixed and rearranged into new forms. I'm reminded of a scene from the film Ghost World in which the hippy art teacher praises a piece by a student that consists of a coffee mug with a tampon placed inside of it. This can reveal the potential absurdity of modern art, but at the same time most can recognize true artistic talents, perhaps even geniuses, who work with such materials. But where is the line to be drawn?

It is true that no artist in history--other than creator God himself--truly 'works from scratch'. But for centuries, even up to fairly recent history, most artists did something much closer to that than is possible in the modernized world. Art turning in on itself in the age of information, becoming ever more highly self-referential and self-aware, was utterly inevitable. The question 'What is art?' may always have been difficult to answer with precision but it's more difficult today than it ever has been in the past.

And it is this question that the film Exit Through The Gift Shop explores, in subtle and multi-layered fashion. On a surface level, the mere observance and documentation of the rise of 'street art'--which is essentially a variation on graffiti--raises interesting thoughts about the nature of art. The first half of the film functions on this level and it's a fascinating peek into this world.

The artform's rise is documented by Thierry, an essentially amateur videophile who records thousands of hours of tape with no real plan or vision for what he is recording. He's an admitted video and chronicler addict. He befriends and assists various street artists, while recording them create their pieces. The relationship is mutually beneficial; Theirry gets footage and gets to fulfill his urge to chronicle and preserve something, possibly something unique and important, while the artists get an accomplice as well as someone to preserve their (by nature temporary) work in video form.

These artists take symbols, cultural icons, words, and images, edit them or place them in certain context and then, usually, post them up around a city. While the line between a sly, clever vandal and a true artist might be a thin one, there are clearly street artists with true talent and vision. Banksy, an English artist, epitomizes the latter. An elusive, shadowy figure in the world of street art, his pieces are provocative, socially conscious, subversive, aesthetically arresting and usually very public.

Thierry and Banksy find each other and join forces for a while, culminating with Banksy's star-studded L.A. art show. This is thrilling for Thierry and strange, but fulfilling for Banksy as well. Banksy then pushes Thierry to compile his footage into a film. Thierry creates a film using what can only be described as a shoddy, random method, and the results are predictably poor. It is at this point that the film takes a very compelling turn as the artist and the filmmaker switch places.

Banksy encourages Thierry to become a street artist himself, after having dabbled in it a bit, while Banksy seeks to document Thierry's foray into street art. The directing credit on Exit Through the Gift Shop is Banksy's. It is at this point that the themes of the film reach their full realization. Thierry is thrust into the world of street art, and his work can only be described as cheap and amateur compared to the work of the artists shown in the first half of the film. Or can it? Is there really any difference between Thierry's work and Invader's or Banksy's? What accounts for Thierry's wild commercial success? Is he, perhaps, the truer, more significant artist?

The film pokes and prods us with these questions as if to halfheartedly suggest that 'art' is entirely a phantom. Only to have the viewer return, upon reflection, to the very obvious fact that there is a qualitative difference between Banksy's art and Thierry's 'art'. Certainly the difference might not be recognized or appreciated by rabid hipsters, dying to be on the cutting edge of the newest trend, but that doesn't mean that the difference isn't there. And I think that is the whole point. While certain concepts might be vague and evasive, there are some things the we know when we see them, even if our words can't fully do them justice. Art is one of those things.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Atheism and the Default Position

Possibly the most common atheist cavil is that atheism is a default position. That the reason someone is an atheist is that they haven't been presented a ground-up case for belief in God founded on evidence, and therefore they are logically committed to atheism until such a case is plausibly presented. In framing the issue in such a manner the atheist attempts to take the higher ground intellectually, but they are actually just playing word games.

If God created the universe then one can correctly say that everything that has ever existed or occurred is evidence--in the proper, modern, scientific sense--of God's existence. If He didn't, then everything is not evidence. Therefore saying that 'there is no evidence for the existence of God' is identically equivalent to saying 'I do not believe in God'. In other words, it is a priori disbelief dressed up pretty. This puts the propositions 'God does exist' and 'God does not exist' at worst on equal footing as mere assertions, and when the evidence is examined more closely--using our philosophical, historical, and scientific analytical tools-- firmly on the side of belief. Of course the atheist doesn't agree with the latter part, and he is entitled to that position, but he has no rights to claim that his disbelief is not actually disbelief but merely an objective surveillance of the evidence and that 'none exists in favor of God', as that merely re-words his disbelief. For if God exists then all is evidence.

One wonders what would even possibly could be presented to the 'rationalist' atheist of this sort that would constitute evidence in the sense that they are looking for. Perhaps if, inspected under some impossible microscope, an electron could be examined and we find that every electron has 'made by Yahweh' stamped on it that might constitute natural evidence for God. Anything short of that probably doesn't fit the criteria for 'evidence', in their mind.

But if God does exist and did create all things, is there any reason we should expect to find any evidence other than what we do find? I can't see any reason we should. If God created the natural world, and it is itself evidence, then there's nothing we should expect to see under our microscopes or in our telescopes other than precisely what we do in fact see. If God acted through miracles supernaturally within history, as Christians assert that he has, would we expect to be able to find any residue of the supernatural left behind in the natural order? No, at least not in any way that is scientifically observable (though in the case of Christianity we would certainly expect to see significant historical'residue', which we do in fact see). So again this lack of 'evidence' in the way that the skeptics mean doesn't even argue for disbelief; it's what we would expect to see whether theism is true or untrue. Not to mention there is much historical evidence that exists and which is not easily dismissed in favor of disbelief, indeed which also argues powerfully for belief, at least in the Christian God specifically.

From our human perspective all contingency and causality only points to a previous event, itself contingent and causal in nature, and so on. Aquinas correctly saw that a series of such events can never account for itself, and therefore the fact that there is such a series of events can be seen as powerful evidence for the existence of God. The atheist wants to follow the chain of contingency back to God as if God himself were also a contingent being, which is not what believers contend.

The fascinating thing about modern cosmology and physics is we may have followed contingency back to its limit, but there we find a brick wall. Either the multiverse theories are correct and we have only more contingency, which itself must still be grounded on something, or--if the beginning of the universe is also the beginning of existence--we find where the contingent meets the absolute. Though we can't see beyond the boundary of the contingent as the atheist apparently demands. In either case, a string of contingency with no known beginning which cannot account for it's own existence, or the contingent having a found boundary both argue against a strictly materialist worldview.

All we have that can be examined empirically is the contingent. And since contingency begets contingency the fact that this is all that we have is mistaken for a lack of evidence. When the reality of the matter is that either this very fact itselfis evidence, or, at worst, whether or not something constitutes evidence is dependent upon whether or not you believe. A good child of the Enlightenment would scoff at this, but it's demonstrably the case, as more contemporary philosophy highlights. One might think that therefore I'm saying evidence and science have no place in a search for truth, which is not the case. I don't believe that we are left adrift in an inadjudicable sea of relativist postmodernism. Only that science and evidence are only useful when their presuppositions and boundaries are properly understood and accounted for. That is, not as the sole or absolute means of divining truth, nor of divining truths of all kinds, but only of certain kinds within certain limits. Those truths can in turn be used to either defend or argue against various beliefs, such as whether or not God exists. But the belief or disbelief comes first and the examination of it second. There is no 'default position'.