I watched Exit Through the Gift Shop this weekend (if you haven’t seen it you can watch it on Netflix Instaque), an interesting documentary about man who set out to make a film about street art and ending up becoming a street “artist” himself and the subject of a documentary himself. It was a fascinating movie because it brings up the question, what is art? If you care to see the movie, you may want to watch it first before reading further.
The movie brings up the question is street “art” art? Is painting pictures of Andre the Giant all over town that say “obey” under them art? Are Thierry Guetta’s awful pictures of reprinted art with random objects painted in (i.e. a picture of Elvis holding a toy gun instead of a guitar or Leonard Nimoy, Michael Jackson and various other pop stars with Marilyn Monroe’s hair). If art is simply self expression, how original does one’s work have to be to be considered art? Additionally, how involved in the creative process does one have to be to be rightly considered the author of a particular work? It is no secret that Guetta hired people to help him put his peices together and his contributions often seem limited.
There are some who would say that true originality is impossible. I understand what is meant by that sentiment, but I think originality on some level ought to be a goal for any artist. At least for me there is an invisible line of originality that if a piece of art falls too far below, I am just not going to pay much attention to it. Certainly there is room for remakes and stories that build on stories past, but even in such stories, give me something original or I am not going to pay much attention. God created us in his image and since God is creator, I think there is something inherent in us that wants to create works of beauty and truth. We live out of the image in which we were created when we produce works that say something about us and the world we live in. So is Theirry Guetta’s work art? Yes, its an expression of himself, though juvenile, his work certainly speaks. Perhaps a better question would be: Is Guetta’s work original enough to warrant our time and attention? Is it good art? I realize the subjective nature of aesthetics but for me the answer to that question is no.
What makes Guetta’s art worth noting, however, is not its lack of aesthetic appeal or its lack of originality, but the enormity of its popularity. In the film, thousands flock to his debut art show and it seems his success, despite the lack of said originality, continues to grow. What does that say about us as human beings? When someone like Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash, enjoys such a high level of success, I have to wonder, what has happened to originality? Are we so inundated with bad art that we have lost the ability to discern what is good?
Banksy, the iconic street artist who directed Exit, recently said of Guetta, “As far as I’m aware, Mr. Brainwash doesn’t know very much about art, especially his own. He seems to mainly judge the success of an art show by how many square feet it covers and whether it makes any money. This probably makes him the ultimate artist of our times.”