"I think the joke is on... I don’t know who the joke is on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke."
Who's the arbiter of what constitutes "good" art? Or art, period? You, the reader, probably have better-formed opinions about tunes (this is a CHIRP Radio site, after all), but still, one person's trash is someone else's treasure. There are entire genres of music that I'm unable to digest, but I certainly don't believe that my tastes are any more or less highfalutin' than another's in this regard -- we simply form an immediate physical reaction to the beats and melodies that we hear. Keep in mind that my background in visual arts is pretty rudimentary, but I kinda think this medium works the same way? Most of us simply will know what we like when we see it.
Enter the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, a project which originally began as a fly-on-the-wall snapshot of the world of street art by vagabond/vintage-clothing proprietor Thierry Guetta. It then later morphed into a profile of reclusive British graffiti wizard Banksy, but when Banksy couldn't make heads-or-tails of Guetta's finished product (Life Remote Control, which Banksy describes as "an hour and a half of unwatchable nightmare trailers"), Banksy decided to commandeer Guetta's tapes and take a stab at stitching together the film.
The result? A profile of Guetta himself, who runs with Banksy's offhand suggestion of creating his own street art, and sinks his life savings into a gargantuan Los Angeles art exposition -- a warehouse populated with work that was "conceived" by Guetta but actually produced by artists he employed. While much of his "style" seems incredibly derivative (he's basically an Andy Warhol knockoff), Guetta's ability to generate interest creates the perception that this is cutting-edge art, and it sells like hotcakes to wildly-enthusiastic audiences... while Banksy and the street-art community are left horrified at the monster they've created.
The last 15 minutes of Exit deliver a series of worthwhile payoffs and questions to ponder. What does it say about visual art, culture, and America, that a guy who seemingly is inept at basically everything* surrounding his chosen profession (he can't even manage his expo, and Banksy recruits some professionals to rescue the event at the 11th hour) can become such an overwhelming financial success? Thinking afterwards, I was struggling to come up with a musical analogy -- maybe The Monkees or Spice Girls, if none of them could sing a lick? However, pre-fab groups are the pawns of studios, whereas the artists creating the work were the pawns of Guetta. Hmm. Perhaps Vanilla Ice is a better example? In advance of his huge breakout, Guetta adopts the apt pseudonym "Mr. Brainwash," though he seems blissfully unaware of the meta implications.
[*He also seems to be a bit of a deadbeat husband and parent, considering his lengthy meanderings around the world and self-described "free bird" approach to life.]
Clarence, what was your take on Guetta? Do you have any background in the world of visual arts, "street art" or otherwise? And what's your opinion of graffiti in general? I found myself struggling with the ethical questions surrounding even the work I enjoyed in the film; it is tampering with private property*, after all, and as much as I enjoyed some of the murals, I also have no desire to see my own home tagged.
[*Word to the wise -- do not, I repeat, do not screw around on Walt Disney's turf.]
While I am by no means an expert, I do have some exposure to the visual art world. I've been attending summer art fairs and events like the annual EXPO Chicago for years, and I've got my list of art-related Web sites that I visit regularly. Also, my late sister Wanda Ewing was a successful contemporary artist and art professor in Omaha, NE. Watching her and her friends, I've found that successful artists:
1) work harder than people in just about any other profession;
2) have an unbelievable generosity of spirit in working with each other and their community; and,
3) would create art even if no one paid any attention to them.
Visual artists from any city also tend to cluster into tight communities where everyone knows everyone else. They can spot frauds and fly-by-nights faster than anyone. No doubt Banksy and his friends have the same kind of camaraderie, made even more intense by the risky nature of their chosen medium. Trust isn't everything, but it is huge in that world.
This is the context I carried in with me watching ETTGS, which I also enjoyed. The question for Bansky, his fellow artists, and this movie's audience seems to boil down to, "Who is Thierry Guetta and why is he doing any of this?" He certainly seems like an interesting chap. He reminded me a lot of the main subject of the doc Man on Wire, all energy and enthusiasm that feels very...European? His back story suggests someone who found a passion as a result of unfortunate events in life, but by the end I was wondering how much of it was just him waiting for a chance to make a big score. Is he a phony, or just passionate? Or both? Does it even matter?
Some street art can be astonishingly beautiful. I especially like images that embed themselves into the environment, reacting to or commenting on the space in which they appear. Here's just one site that collects some excellent examples. I think Bansky and his contemporaries are truly brilliant in this regard. The thing about Guetta is how, when he started creating his own work, the bigness of it seemed to be more of a "look at me" vanity than a true pursuit of artistic expression.
On the other end of the spectrum, a lot of graffiti is just garbage from untalented people who are defacing property. Chicago is unique in its low tolerance for graffiti, which I think gives our city a uniquely unsullied look compared to New York and Los Angeles. This is fine with me. My general thinking is that if you want to doodle spray paint on something, do it on your own house.
I'm glad you brought up music, because the issue of authenticity or "being real" has been at the forefront of American pop music since the singer-songwriter dominance of the early '70s. The artifice of television has added another layer to it. But the equation that maps artistic authenticity and entertainment quality has so many subtleties to it you have to take things on a case-by-case basis. Even though the Monkees were formed as a cash-grab Beatles knockoff, those guys actually could make music. And while Robert Van Winkle is, well, who he is, the song that put Vanilla Ice on the map, "Ice Ice Baby" is a legitimately good track.
When that song was first released, a lot of people who heard it assumed Vanilla Ice was black. Same with Madonna when she debuted with "Lucky Star" and "Holiday" back in the '80s. Madonna is an interesting case since she needs to wrap herself up in studio production and provocative images because (and I say this without malice) she can't sing. But for a certain generation of females, she was a powerful symbol - a daring woman who could call her own shots. Now, does this mean her music is any less "real" than someone like Solange or PJ Harvey? That probably depends on why you're listening to her in the first place.
[Actually, the more I think about it, the more the Madonna/Guetta comparison seems to hold...!]
I wonder, is there any kind of Thierry Guetta analogue in movie-making or other collaborative and expensive mediums like theater? And could you see yourself ever cleaning out your bank account to risk every penny on any kind of creative art project?
I'm very sorry to hear your sister is no longer with us, Clarence -- she had quite an impressive bio (they certainly don't name art galleries after just anyone) and I'd love to check out her "biting, comical" work. Clearly, you've had much more exposure to the visual-arts community than I have! And Exit reinforces your point about the tireless work ethic of successful artists, none of whom have any illusions about getting rich (or even paying the rent) when they start out. In fact, simply getting their creations out to the masses while avoiding local law enforcement seems to be a best-case scenario for most street artists.
[There are those who do manage to successfully monetize their skills later in life. One is Banksy; this is an impressive accomplishment for a guy won't even show his face on camera, and only speaks through a voice-scrambler.]
I agree that Guetta seemed to be, as you said, "an interesting chap." Very affable, and certainly his enthusiasm for the street-art world was endearing. He was a bit of a groupie in a sense? Of course, the fans who spent truckloads of cash for his work only knew him as Mr. Brainwash. At his expo, he was a celebrity, even though much of the work had been delegated to others.
Madonna may well be the best pop analogy! She was tailor-made for the MTV generation; would her dance-pop have had any shelf life without the cult of personality she created? And you raise a great question with regards to why we listen to music, especially in our youth. Madonna's radio singles were chock-full of hooks and toe-tapping beats, but absent her relentless self-promotion, maybe she's just a modern-day Ke$ha? And finished as a cultural/commercial force by the time she's 30?
As far as a cinema comparison, I'll throw out a name here: Quentin Tarantino. Let me preface this by saying that I love Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction... and have pretty much hated everything he's done since.
1) Groupie status? Check. Tarantino was a super-cinema buff who worked at video stores and made friends with folks like producer Lawrence Bender and actor Harvey Keitel, both of whom were instrumental in getting his debut off the ground.
2) No formal moviemaking experience? Check. He rented cameras and other equipment on weekends, well in advance of Reservoir Dogs, and basically taught himself how to film scenes.
3) Borrowed liberally from a number of other directors in his debut? Check. Check out the list of influences here -- most of these were largely unknown to audiences, particularly college-age folks at the time like myself.
That said... we all steal from someone, whether we're conscious of it or not. "We stand on the shoulders of giants," as the saying goes. And we view Guetta as a hack partly because he was first introduced in Exit as a nobody. Would we think of Tarantino the same way if we were privy to a documentary about him toiling away behind a video-rental desk and trying to squeeze into Hollywood parties? I don't know.
And most importantly, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were fun movies, at least to this scribe. If he was a hack, he was damn successful at it, because the style that Tarantino adopted (pop-culture conversations, non-linear storytelling) was itself repeatedly ripped off throughout the '90s! (My pick for the best of these homages: Go, by Doug Liman.)
Tarantino's work in the years since has left me rather empty, and has sort of been a microcosm of modern-day Hollywood blockbusters? Full of spectacle, while leaving me devoid of any attachment to characters. With lots and lots of winking at the cameras.
As far as cleaning out my account for a creative project, my #1 fear would be that I don't really have any great sense of what would be commercially popular! Did you ever see the BBC/HBO show Extras? One of the few comedies I've loved -- it's about a struggling actor (Ricky Gervais) who finally manages to get his television show made... except that there's so much studio meddling, the finished product is completely insipid and full of cheap laughs. Of course, it's wildly popular, only with all the people that Ricky's character despises.
[Didn't Kurt Cobain feel a great deal of angst when he started seeing hordes of frat boys show up at Nirvana concerts...?]
Clarence, have you enjoyed any other films about visual arts, whether they be documentary or fiction? Leaving heist tales aside, four wildly different movies come to mind for me. My Left Foot,The Shape of Things,Museum Hours, and finally, the Werner Herzog documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams*. Art isn't an easy subject to tackle? For it to work on the big screen, it seems like there often has to be a component of social commentary involved.
[*One of the rare cases where watching in 3-D really added something to the experience. I felt as though I was spelunking along with Werner and company.]
I'm glad you mentioned Tarantino. He's one of my favorite pre-2005 American directors, although I avoid listening to him in any other context. His hyper-motormouth routine got old before the '90s ended.
But what separated Tarantino from the millions of other young men working on the fringes of the movie industry looking for a break is that, for all his borrowing from other people, Tarantino has genuine talent when it comes to film making, specifically in writing. His three best films, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill Vol. 1&2. highlight his ability to craft conversations and use words that are just as essential as the violence and cultural references.
I'm in the same ballpark as you in regards to his later work, and I think you described it perfectly. The premiere of a new Tarantino film has become such an over-hyped event and so many are ready to call whatever he puts out a "masterpiece" that honest critical analysis is hard to come by.
Extras is one of my all-time favorite sitcoms. Ricky Gervais has (had?) such a talent for getting underneath the surface and make comedy out of tragedy, something he also did with original version of The Office. There's real poignancy in his efforts to hold on to his creative freedom in an industry that hates that sort of thing. I also enjoyed Go in the way the director used Tarantino-esque ideas and did his own thing with them instead of just copying.
This, to me, helps highlight what's going on with Guetta. For all of his enthusiasm, he just doesn't appear to be talented at making art. The fact that he spent years with a camera in his hand obsessively connecting with real artists doesn't mean what he produces himself has aesthetic worth or tells us something about the world we live in. Compare him to someone like Vivian Maier, who took photographs in her spare time while working all her life as a nanny and whose rediscovered work is obviously that of a true artistic talent.
What helps Guetta is living in an age, thanks to a a 24/7/365 media environment, where recycled culture is the norm. The ability to cite and to some extent manipulate images and words that already exist gives certain people a certain kind of cultural currency as well as room to pass off what they do as original even if it's clearly just history repeating. One example is the truly awful movie Two Days in the Valley, a pathetic attempt to recycle Tarantino that ends up being the copy of a copy one would expect.
I can't think of too many films about art that I really like that don't involve a heist...! It helps to have an artist with a compelling personality like Kirk Douglas' portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life or Ed Harris as Jackson Pollack in the film Pollack. I think you're right in that there has to be something extra attached to a story to make it work. The problem is that the process of making most art of any kind is flatly uninteresting to people who aren't doing it. The planning, the prep work, the false starts, the sitting around staring at an empty canvas or blank page, these things don't exactly scream "compelling drama." But they are the necessary steps involved in the act of creation.
No doubt, there will always be a Guetta somewhere in the world looking for fame and riches. Something art enthusiasts, critics, and buyers can do is continue to sharpen our own faculties so we can see through the self-promoter with giant neon canvases and no substance, while seeking out the quiet person in the corner who doesn't talk much but may be working on the next masterpiece.
Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!