Banksy, Muniz, modern art narratives, and the search for meaning
Odds are that you’ve heard at least something about “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the “documentary” that, on the surface level, is about street art, the infamously elusive Banksy, a fame-hungry imposter, and the stupidity of the art world….I think.
As will come readily apparent after even a simple trailer viewing, the movie is thoroughly tongue-in-cheek, leading many to wig out when it was recently nominated for an Academy. (For much, much more, on the debate over what the movie shows, start clicking here, here, and here—after you watch the film.)
Some of my friends have called it a “snooze fest” with an obvious, depressing message. (I disagree with the former and shrug my shoulders at the latter.) Really, there’s a lot more at stake than that; above all else, I thought it was a phenomenally entertaining experiment with narrative and audience expectations. Yes, on a certain level, you’re being screwed with and yes, perhaps that’s an obvious angle that’s been done before.
If for nothing else, I love this movie for how well it crystallizes so many discussions into one narrative. In the end, yes, this is a meta-narrative about other metas…but I’m completely willing to go along for the ride, thanks to the humor and grace it extends. (Unlike other recent plodding meta-narratives; “Inception,” anyone? Anyone? OK, it was worth a shot…)
In the end, I think you can get depressed at the “meaninglessness” of it all…or you can allow yourself a bit of a warm hearted chuckle.
Regardless, I highly recommend following up “Exit Through the Gift Shop” with Vic Muniz’s “Waste Land.” There are some surface similarities–both feature contemporary artists directing others, both play around with the almost-ridiculously easy trope of “art out of everyday objects,” both explore the absurdities of the modern art scene…but for any and all similarities, the difference between the processes showcased couldn’t be more stark; the movies are, in many ways, the antithesis of each other. “Exit” purposefully highlights the absurdity of haphazardly slapping a blank label and a high price tag on the mundane; “Waste Land” very sincerely tries to find true, unironic beauty and meaning in one of the dirtiest corners of the world. As such, perhaps these films, back-to-back, chronicle the much-heralded evolution of a po-mo generation hungry for even a glimpse of sincerity and purpose…?
It’s true that I’ve increasingly heard artists talk longingly about making “redemptive” art, art marked by meaning and message. It’s extremely interesting to me to see these two films grapple with just that and come to very different conclusions…and to see how the processes behind the art they highlight affect people in completely different ways.
Both titles are currently available on Netflix streaming.