I have finally gotten around to seeing “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, which received New York Film Critics Online award for best documentary of 2010 even though some critics view it as a mockumentary in the style of “Catfish”. The movie has been described as a satire on art world trendiness, one of my favorite topics. Since it addresses the question of “truth and fiction” in documentary film—the chief obsession of Jane Gaines, the self-described Marxist film professor whose class on documentary film I dropped like a hot potato after finally realizing where she was going—I felt I owed it to myself to have a gander.
After weighing in on this highly regarded film that has a 98 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I will say a few words about “Cinema Verite”, the HBO fictional treatment of the making of “An American Family”, the 1973 PBS documentary about the Louds of Santa Barbara. If cinéma vérité implies a detached fly-on-the-wall approach to its subject matter, then “An American Family” was anything but. As is the case with “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, you are dealing very much with a staged reality, even if director Banksy would never admit it as such.
Perhaps the biggest problem for me was the presence of Thierry Guetta in practically every moment of Exit. Guetta is a Frenchman who shortly after opening a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles became obsessed with videorecording. He began recording almost continuously but without any clear purpose in mind. Eventually he became focused on street art after learning that his cousin Invader was working in this idiom. To describe Guetta’s observations as banal would be the understatement not just of the century but from the time when the universe originated.
Soon afterwards he hooks up with Shepherd Fairey, the artist whose Obama Hope poster was credited for generating broad support for the politician now understood to be nothing more than a swindler. In keeping with the tainted character of the 2008 campaign, the Associated Press sued Fairey for using one of their photos without permission. In the world of street art, such “sampling” has generated legal complaints on the same scale as in the hip-hop world where it originated.
Even Fairey has seen fit to call in the law when his own intellectual property is at stake as the Boston Globe pointed out in February 2009:
What do you do if you’re a street artist turned marketing phenom who uses other people’s images when someone uses one of your designs? If you’re Shepard Fairey, apparently, you call your lawyers.
Fairey, of Obama HOPE poster fame, is defending himself against charges he infringed on an Associated Press copyrighted photo in making the poster. He’s also been criticized by artists for using others’ work without attribution (see background here and here). His lawyers claim in the AP case that he is protected by fair use provisions of the copyright law.
It turns out, however, that the activist art appropriator is a wee bit more sensitive when it is his images that are being “repurposed.” An Austin, Texas, artist named Baxter Orr made a parody of Fairey’s Andre the Giant design, adorning it with a SARS mask and the title “Protect Yourself.” Last April, Fairey mobilized his legal team to send Orr a cease and desist order threatening legal action against him.
It should be added that left-of-center politics, even if it is of the tepid pro-Obama variety, is de rigeur for the ambitious street artist. Fairey has built up a resume that shows he is against the Evil Corporate World, although one critic is less than impressed.
Shepard Fairey’s Image Problem
By Liam O’Donoghue
As if Wal-Mart didn’t have enough controversies to deal with, imagine the consternation in the PR war room when news hit that the retail giant was selling t-shirts bearing a Nazi SS skull. As the story unraveled, it turned out that Wal-Mart’s designer had ripped off the image from pop art superstar Shepard Fairey, whose reference for the Gestapo logo was 1960’s “biker culture.” Oops.
Using the international notoriety of his global “Andre the Giant has a posse” street art campaign as a platform, Shepard Fairey has leveraged his prolific output and iconic, anti-authoritarian style into a mini-empire. Through his ObeyGiant company (Motto: Manufacturing Quality Dissent Since 1989), he churns out screen-printed posters, clothing, and limited-run merchandise including skateboards and laser-engraved watches. His other design company, Studio Number One, specializes in branding, promotional campaigns and “identity systems” for corporate clients including Mountain Dew, Virgin, and Honda. He is also founder and creative director of Subliminal Projects art studio in Los Angeles and uber-hip Swindle magazine. His audience and the value of his work has surged in recent months on the popularity of his now-ubiquitous Obama posters.
Although Fairey “didn’t get bent out of shape” about Wal-Mart ripping him off, he originally launched his ObeyGiant clothing line because he saw that the Urban Outfitters chain was selling “bootlegged” shirts with his Giant logo. “To see it in there, just ripped off, knowing that somebody just made a bunch of money selling the t-shirts to Urban Outfitters, and here I am, just barely being able to pay my rent was definitely upsetting to me,” Fairey told me during an interview for Mother Jones. “The reason I get pissed off about stuff like that is because I didn’t build up the resonance for that image just to hand it off to someone to exploit.”
This irony is not lost on Lincoln Cushing, an art historian and author who recently brokered a royalty agreement between Fairey and the estate of deceased Cuban artist Rene Mederos over a design of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos that Fairey essentially swiped and slapped his “Obey” logo onto. When confronted, Fairey was quick to cut a check to Mederos’s family, but Cushing described the Mederos episode as a common dynamic. “Many U.S. artists don’t seem to treat the intellectual property rights of third world artists the same as fellow U.S. artists,” Cushing said, and added that artists aren’t the only ones willing to steal from those still isolated from the U.S. economy. “For many years the web-based sales catalog of Barnes and Noble marketed over 30 unauthorized digitally-reproduced ‘Cuban posters.’ I contacted them many times about dealing with this properly, and they never responded.”
Eventually Guetta hooks up with Banksy, the super-secretive British street artist who is credited with having directed the film. Throughout the film, Banksy’s face is obscured underneath the hood of a sweatshirt and his voiced is altered as well. After Banksy allows the obsessed fan Guetta to follow him about on his nightly graffiti expeditions with a video camera, he warms up to him all the while sensing that Guetta is a fairly shallow person more enamored of the “scene” than the ambitions of the people involved with making art. It must be said that between the two men, it is a nose-and-nose race to determine who is the winner in a banality contest.
When Banksy sees a moment or two of Guetta’s utterly unwatchable documentary on street art based on his voluminous collection of tapes, he proposes a reallocation of responsibilities. Banksy will now make the movie (hence, “Exit Through the Gift Shop”) and Guetta will transform himself into a street artist.
The final half-hour of the film recounts Banksy’s well-publicized splash into the Los Angeles art scene with a 2006 show titled “Barely Legal”, a reference to the constant threat of arrests for defacement that such artists have to put up with. It is also a reference to the “outlaw”, and even revolutionary self-image, that people like Shepherd Fairey and Banksy cultivate as the NY Times reported on the show:
Earlier this month Banksy surreptitiously placed a blow-up doll dressed as a Guantánamo detainee inside the fence of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland, where it apparently remained for more than an hour before park officials shut down the ride and removed it. Recently he also smuggled 500 altered versions of Paris Hilton’s new CD into record stores around Britain and placed them in the racks.
All of those stunts are featured in a video that loops continuously at the show, which also includes two large rooms displaying stenciled images on canvas, sculptures and mixed-media productions, like the panel van with the notice on the back, “How’s My Bombing?” and an 800 number that links to a Navy recruiting office in Phoenix.
All of this is arranged around a sort of mock-self-loathing, elephant-in-the-room theme, or, as Banksy puts it in a handout: “1.7 billion people have no access to clean drinking water. 20 billion people live below the poverty line. Every day hundreds of people are made to feel physically sick by morons at art shows telling them how bad the world is but never actually doing something about it. Anybody want a free glass of wine?”
It turns out that Guetta accompanied Banksy to the Disneyland expedition and was detained by security guards for his effort. In keeping with the generally low-level intellectual quality of the film, much more is made of the melodrama of being interrogated than the purpose of putting a blown-up doll dressed as a Guantánamo detainee on Disneyland property. One supposes this is in the nature of street art subversion, to make people ask, “what was that about?” than to really change minds.
All in all, the street art of people like Banksy and Shepherd Fairey has the same aspirations as the Biennial Exhibits at the Whitney Museum in New York that is filled with all sorts of “transgressive” flourishes that are meant to establish the bona fides of the artists while remaining marketable to hedge fund managers.
I am always reminded of my stint at Goldman-Sachs in 1986 when the dining room was filled with such artwork, including Barbara Kruger’s photos with messages like “I shop, therefore I am.”
In no time at all, Guetta learns the street artist ropes and begins his new career as Mr. Brainwash (MBW). After his “work” attracts attention, he decides to mount a major exhibition in the style of Banksy’s “Barely Legal”. Called “Life is Beautiful”, it displayed mostly works by experienced artists who created works according to Guetta’s specifications. In fact, Guetta is never seen once making art in the entire film and many critics assume that Banksy is the real creator, using Guetta as a stand-in for his own persona. What conclusions can be drawn from this? As the Times article above reported, there is an element of self-loathing in Banksy’s ongoing project. If you are going to satirize the market-driven art world, a shmuck like Guetta does provide a certain usefulness since he detracts attention away from the real conmen like Fairey and Banksy.
For Roger Ebert, the possibility that Exit is a hoax only serves to heighten its fascination. I, on the other hand, grew weary with the whole premise. For me it was just another exercise in post-modernist irony that is as dated as the overheated art market of the mid-1980s and the Wall Street super-profits that kept it going.
“Cinema Verite” was co-directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the same team responsible for the memorable “American Splendor”, based on Harvey Pekar’s work, as well as the not so memorable “The Extra Man” that I reviewed recently.
It recreates the making of “An American Family”, a PBS documentary series on the Loud family of Santa Barbara that aired in 1973 and that literally spawned “reality TV”. Arguably, there would be no “Housewives of…” today without the PBS antecedent, for better or for worse obviously (I am a fan of The Housewives of Atlanta–Orange County housewives forget about it.)
The show was watched by millions, including a number of 1960s radicals who saw it as a symbol of the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family that could not hold up under the pressures of the Vietnam War, gay liberation, feminism and all of the other deep changes occurring in American society. In a NY Times article on the show, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard is cited as having described the PBS series as “a symptom of our altered relationship with reality, characterized by ‘dissolution of TV in life, dissolution of life in TV.’” As is the case with reality shows today, the people being filmed don’t matter how degraded they appear, as long as the camera is rolling.
The patriarch was Bill Loud, a Republican voter who cheated on his wife Pat both before the filming began and during. Tim Robbins plays him ably and Diane Lane is also very good as Pat. Lance, their eldest son (played by Thomas Dekker), was an out-of-the closet gay and the first gay ever to appear on television and who died of AIDS in 2001 at the age of 50.
The main connection this worthy film has with the “truth or fiction” preoccupation of film school critical studies is its revelation that producer-director Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) manipulated the Louds in order to create compelling television. For example, after Bill Loud drags him along to meet one of his lovers, an aspiring actress who might be impressed with Gilbert’s show-biz credentials, Gilbert tattles on him to Pat, thus leading to a series of escalating incidents that would lead to her announcement on the show that she wants a divorce. It turns out that Gilbert also manipulated her into making that announcement despite her intentions to keep it off-camera.
As a sign of how far we have progressed since the original airing of “An American Family”, its useful to recall how a NY Times article by Ann Roiphe described Lance Loud’s “flamboyant, leechlike, homosexuality” and openly wondered why his parents showed no “open horror” at his sexual orientation.
It took a gay liberation movement to finally put a stake in the heart of this kind of open homophobia.
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” can be rented from Netflix, “Cinema Verite” is available on-demand from HBO; “An American Family” unfortunately is unavailable.