Art and Originality: Exit Through the Gift Shop

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.”

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    The question of whether or not something is “art” is nigh impossible to answer. I would say that nearly everything is “art”, it is simply a question of whether or not something is good or bad, and then, what you mean by good and bad.

    For example, if a person goes and writes a “book”, and has it bound, is it a book even if the written is terrible, the story nonsensical, and the spelling horrible? Well, yes, I suppose it is. Or, if two people are talking to each other, is it a conversation? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that good communication is happening.

    I’m afraid that we have a definition of “art” that is a bit spoiled. We think Picasso or Monet or Bach or Faulkner or Pavarotti. The guy at your church; he’s no Pavarotti. But he can probably sing and even inspire. So, he is still a singer, or dare we say, an artist! Just because he isn’t Pavarotti doesn’t mean his performance isn’t singing. It just is what it is. When we realize that, we can even find value, or interest, in goofy paintings of Andre the Giant.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    Yeah I agree with you Brad, I tried to subtly indicate in this article what you have suggested here, I purposefully didn’t give a definition of art here because I think its so hard to define. In fact we have had numerous discussions here at CAPC attempting to define art and I didn’t really want to go there in this post.

    As I said, I am fine with defining what Mr. Brainwash does as art, though I find lame and juvenile. My point here was to ask how original something should be and to ask if there isn’t something God’s creation of us in His image that means we are wired to create with some level of originality?

    I just wonder how the fall has affected our ability to recognize beauty and to create works of beauty and originality?

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Drew,

    Originality is as difficult to pin down as art itself. An interesting exercise in “art” appreciation would be to sit down and watch the original “True Grit” with the latest remake. Most folks are caught up in who played the better lead, but the more interesting question is what are the story line differences, and then to ask why they changed them. Finally, follow that with reading the book on which both movies were based. Neither movie is “original,” and yet both are unique. In some ways, I think that remakes are gold mines, if done well, to sort of track how things have changed in the mind of the second artist from the time the first one was made.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    Brad,

    I agree completely that originality is hard to nail down and I would say its impossible for any of us to be completely original–if when making a decided effort not to let outside forces influence what we produce, we are still influenced if even subconsciously by the other works of art that we have experienced. I guess I just wanted to say that I think attempting originality is important. Or at least that artists ought to put thought into what they do and if their work says exactly what previous works say, then its not really good art … I just think artists should strive for nuance.

    Its interesting that you bring up True Grit because I recently saw the new movie and shortly after watched the original John Wayne film. I also have the book now and am planning to read it soon. It was interesting to watch the movies back-to-back because I do think that the Coen brothers’ film was quite different. Much of the script is the same, which probably indicates that they were working heavily from the book because the Coen bros claim that they had not seen the John Wayne film and they were simply trying to make a direct port of the book.

    After seeing both films, I thought the Coens’ offered more than enough nuance to make that particular remake worth seeing. The biggest difference, as many will tell you, is in the way the two movies end. The Coens’ ending was much darker in some appropriate ways I thought, but this darker feel is noticeable throughout the film, especially in the landscapes they chose as the setting for the film.

    Anyway, all that to say I often love remakes and I don’t think anything I said would contradict that. True Grit is an example of how remakes can actually be very original and worthy art.

    While originality is hard to come by and certainly we are all a lot more influenced by others than we realize, I just want to hold on to the ideal that originality on some level is worth shooting for and I think that has something to do with us being created in God’s image.

    Anyone else want to weigh in?

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    “I just wonder how the fall has affected our ability to recognize beauty and to create works of beauty and originality?”

    I’m a bit uncomfortable with this idea. It’s certainly well-rooted in Platonism (or at least in my understanding of Platonism), but I’m not sure how biblical the idea is. Just like with art, I’m not convinced there is any abstract embodiment of beauty to which earthly thing more or less conform. The idea you’re getting at here is that (correct me if I’m wrong) beauty is wrapped up in the nature of God in such a way that for us to fail to apprehend God means we will fail to apprehend beauty.

    The converse then is the idea that those most attuned to the nature of God, those who are most righteous and holy, will be the best arbiters of what is beautiful. And I think I’d like to go out on a limb and propose that this isn’t the case.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    I have to admit to being an amateur art critic so I apologize if I am being unclear but that is not the question I had in mind, at least not the way you are articulating it.

    I don’t mean that Christians alone can truly appreciate beauty. Christians are certainly affected by the fall as well. And I wasn’t really trying to answer this question so much as pose it.

    How has the fall affected our ability to distinguish beauty? Maybe I am being too harsh but its a bit depressing that people flock to Mr. Brainwash art shows and gush over his artistic vision which seems to amount to throwning a bunch of random stuff into other people’s art. i.e. putting an eye patch on the Mona Lisa etc.

    I would say, yes the fall has affected everyone and everything we do for that matter. The question is how? I don’t really know the answer, I am curious as to what others think.


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