I knew very little about Exit Through The Gift Shop prior to seeing it, except that it was generally considered very “good” among lots of “indie” circles. I didn’t even know it was a documentary until it began. So I was able to go into it with essentially no pre-conceived notions about the film, and I came out of it with a lot of interesting and conflicting feelings and ideas. (If you would like to do the same, do not read on until you have seen it.)
Exit Through The Gift Shop primarily tells the story of Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman with a video camera who stumbles onto a continent-spanning underground street art scene and then stumbles onto hosting his own gallery show that is either a complete work of genius or a complete farce – or perhaps both. With no real artistic experience to speak of, Guetta remortgages his clothing store to pay designers to flesh out his random ideas – like a profile of Batman’s grandfather “Bat papi,” or a picture of Elvis cradling a Fisherprice toy gun instead of a guitar. He sets up a gallery inside a huge warehouse and pours on a huge amount of hype. With a little help from his sympathetic street art friends who prevent the event from turning into a disaster, thousands of people line up outside and Guetta ends up selling these parodic pieces of “art” to enthusiastic visitors for tens of thousands of dollars. A quote from Banksy’s former spokesman sums up the feeling: “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.”
The central unspoken question of the film seems to be that unanswerable philosophic classic, “What is art?” And its relative: “What makes art valuable?” The film seems to encourage you to think that Guetta’s work is essentially a sham of copycatted riffing, Photoshopped parody, and an overall sense of unoriginality. Now there wasn’t really anything wrong with all of this from an economic standpoint. As my wife pointed out, while Guetta paid his designers day rates and made out with all the profits, he also took on all the risk of the project – much like a filmmaker paying a crew to flesh out his artistic vision. And yet I can’t shake the gut feeling that something is not as it should be.
There’s an almost-snooty posturing out there that declares that a lot of stuff that passes for “modern art” these days is basically crap, from the black dot on a white canvas to Duchamp’s toilet (figuratively and literally!). I find that line of thinking very attractive and would point to Guetta’s work as another example. Slapping a pirate eyepatch on Mona Lisa – come on, that’s not art! But it’s hard to argue such a view since art is so subjective by its very nature. The street artists didn’t seem to think Guetta’s work was art. They probably think their custom stencils and printed images are better than the gang symbols and profane babble of “low-level” graffiti vandals, but those graffiti vandals might think their own work is art. And the guy that owns the defaced building or the guy cleaning it up might think none of it is art! (The movie avoids discussing the costs of the uninvited alterations of both public and private property.) If people like it, then it is art to them, right? So who cares if I think it’s all just the work of a talentless hack if there are people that convince themselves to find enjoyment and value in it, right?
Time for a little economic segue. When considering what something is worth, the layman’s answer is “whatever someone is willing to pay for it.” So if someone’s willing to pay thousands of dollars for a ten-minute Photoshop job, then it’s worth thousands of dollars, right? Well, kind of. But that’s only one side of the transaction; there is also the cost of replacement. When you own something, it doesn’t matter what you paid for it five years ago. That was its value then. Now the traditional answer for its value today is whatever price you would be willing to sell it for today. But if you don’t want to sell it, its value is simply whatever it would cost to buy a new one (because above that price you would be willing to sell it to the sucker and just buy yourself a new one). And if you lose or break something, your net worth does not decrease by the amount you originally paid for that thing, but by the amount that you have to expend to replace it.
Now back to the art world. The problem I and many others have with a lot of modern art is not so much that other people place a different value on it than we do. They are free to do that (and we are free to think they are suckers). The problem with modern art is that a lot of it seems to have a very low cost of replacement. We look at a lot of modern art and think, “Come on, even I could do something like that. This piece of artwork takes no talent. It has an extremely low cost of replacement!” These reactions mirror my reactions to a lot of songs that get played on popular radio. “Come on, even I could write rhymes like that. This is so unoriginal and formulaic and so easy to replace, and yet so many people like it!” I feel like good artwork requires talent and has a high cost of replacement; no one else can make art as good as that talented artist.
Of course, the art still has to “look good.” You could spend days writing the alphabet over and over in tiny lettering all over the walls of a house, and that would have a very high cost of replacement, but that wouldn’t make it valuable modern art (well, actually.. these days.. maybe you should go for it!). Similarly, a talented metal guitarist could churn out an extremely technical riff that still isn’t pleasant to listen to. High quality ingredients don’t guarantee a high quality meal, but they allow a potential for higher quality that can be maximized by the talented cook. That’s why the cheese slices from the $3 bag at the grocery store taste a lot better than the ones from the $1 bag. Except the cheese industry is competitive enough that the cheap cheese has a lower cost of replacement than the expensive cheese. With modern art (and popular music), sometimes it seems to me like people are paying big bucks for dollar cheese and thinking they’re getting a good deal when they could get much better cheese for the same price or get almost anyone to make the same dollar cheese for way cheaper. But then I sound like a cheese snob. After all, maybe we all just have different tastes in cheese…