Exit Through The Gift Shop is a movie you feel smart for watching, but foolish trying to discuss, because you can’t be entirely sure you’re not setting yourself up for a fall.
Let’s start with the most obvious reason why: the hoax factor. Forget the fact that people are asking if it’s a hoax documentary or not – they’re asking how much of it is a hoax.
The problem here, to me, is there are only two safe options in voicing your opinion – to proclaim it’s 100% fake, or mostly fake with a hint of truth. Anything else opens you up to being ridiculed should the truth come out at a later date.
Then there is the content of the movie, which looks at the nature of street art. What is it trying to say? Is it trying to say that the work that artists spent years developing, once it’s popular, is unbelievably easy to fake and strip of all significance? No surprise there, a quick look at the abstract piece Voice of Fire made many people think one thing:
And it’s true. Your kid could do that. And anyone can go out and put stickers or paint stencils on walls in the dead of night. And if your kid did paint a copy of Voice of Fire would the ordinary art fan really see a difference?
So what makes one art and the other not?
Exit Through The Gift Shop seems to pose this question to the audience without ever actually asking it. Instead it spends the first 2/3rds of the film showing our “hero” follow around various street artists, then for the last third how he himself quickly sets up an art show of himself and becomes an instant hit via the power of hype.
If you’re paying attention, it’s hard not to see the actual work of “Mister Brain Wash” as anything but derivative of what we’d seen beforehand. MBW, real or fake, has an energy and exuberance that is hard to fault, yet you don’t really get a sense of him trying to say or do anything, well, artistic. At his show you’re bombarded with images, yes. Professionally crafted with an aesthetic sense of style. It certainly looks like an art show. All it lacks is a message. It feels like the kind of art show you’d see in a 1980s movie that has a major scene taking place in an art show, if that makes any sense.
At this point it’s like falling down the rabbit hole, because very quickly you’re going to find yourself asking questions about, well, everything you’re watching. What is the message of the other street artists? What is the point of posting stylized pictures of Andre the Giant, for example? Is it to get people to ask questions about what the point is of posting stylized pictures of Andre the Giant?
And it’s easy to feel silly about asking these questions – because you’re a smart guy, shouldn’t you know what the 411 is on this already? And because of the doubt around the film if you do come to a conclusion after watching it, is it the one you were intended to come to, or were you just fooled? Or both?
It certainly makes me take a second look at my photographs with the Hipstamatic camera. The very ease of taking those pictures and effortlessly making them look retro almost obscures the fact that all I’m doing is shooting pictures of stuff around the house and at work. Almost. The filters make it look good. But what did I actually do? Found an angle, I guess.
Looking good in and of itself is not art. As much as there are fans of the Hipstamatic, there are “real” camera lovers who loathe it for the very reasons I mentioned. On the other hand, one of my coworkers is a professional photographer and she loved playing with it (and the pictures I took). I’ll have to discuss this issue with her.
And this sense of doubt spills over to my writing as well. Am I a writer – or just writing? Does a word processor that corrects my spelling and grammar make me less of a writer than someone who had to hand type and hand correct their manuscripts on a manual typewriter?
Part of the perception, I suppose, is that when something is more difficult to do it becomes a natural weeding process, getting rid of the wannabes due to time, money, and effort required. It’s a trial by fire that makes prospects earn their stripes. When something is easy and anyone can do it, anyone will – so long as it’s cool or fun.
Is that elitism? Well, yes, but there’s a point behind it. Malcolm Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point the 10,000 rule – that most professionals had typically put in 10,000 hours of effort directly and indirectly into their work before they achieved success. There is no such thing as instant success. In reality people don’t shoot to stardom overnight.
(But wouldn’t MBW’s constant filming over the years amount to 10,000 hours of second-hand art experience? Ugh, more questions!)
So what makes someone an artist? The work itself? The years of effort it took to get to that point? General consensus? Is art about going where no one has gone before? If that’s the case, and if this is a hoax by Banksy, then maybe the message here might be that it’s time for him to move onto something else. He’s taken street art and made it commercially viable, and as a result doomed it.
Or has he? I think my brother put the nature of the film and Banksy’s work in general best – it has a sense of playfulness to it, and even when it has something serious to say doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Maybe that’s the ultimate message of Exit Through The Gift Shop?