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.