“I had reservations about making art a business,” the famous art collector Mary Boone once said. “But I got over it.”
Such is the tension within all artistic industries — film, painting, theater or music, the idea of selling-out dogs them all. Are the high prices that paintings go for at Sotheby’s or films sell for at Sundance indicative of their success, or their impurity? And how do you distinguish the “true” art from the art that’s just hyped? Do the two have to be mutually exclusive?
The recent documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” takes up these questions and then some. Ever since its “surprise” Sundance premiere in January, the film has generated a considerable amount of attention. Supposedly directed by British street-art provocateur Banksy — famous for his political and controversial acts of graffiti, such as painting on Israel’s West Bank Barrier — much of the buzz has circled around questions of the film’s veracity: Was the film’s protagonist, a French videomaker-turned-artist named Thierry Guetta, just a fabrication? Was the entire project yet another infamous Banksy prank?
But whether the film is real or staged or somewhere in between misses the point: “Exit Through the Gift Shop” — as its title suggests — is ultimately a lacerating critique on the commercialization of art, making it the latest in a new wave of documentaries that focus on the struggles of artists and art aficionados to define the value of art in a world dominated by profit motives and capitalist enterprise. As the recently released “The Art of The Steal” makes strikingly apparent in its chronicle of Philadelphia’s power grab of a private collection of impressionist masterworks, art is big business.
It’s no surprise that Banksy also raises the ugly specter of art’s commodification in his debut film. After his works sold at Sotheby’s in 2007 for record-breaking amounts for a young artist, he posted a painting of an auction house on his website with the caption, “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”
One could pose a similar question to the patrons of abstract expressionist artist Marla Olmstead, the four-year-old painter at the center of Amir Bar-Lev’s 2007 documentary “My Kid Could Paint That.” Like “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” which contrasts art that’s heralded as legitimate (from Banksy) with work that is depicted as a rip-off (by Guetta), Bar-Lev’s film addresses a similar conflict. Are Olmstead’s paintings true expressions of childhood genius, or is her art guided by her father, an amateur painter, and then exploited for profit as the work of a prodigy?
2006’s “Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?” starts with a matching quandary. The film opens with an image of an abstract expressionist painting and the voiceover: “Is this a genuine honest-to-god no-doubt-about-it American masterpiece, possibly worth up to $50 million? Maybe.” In a former female truck driver’s quest to make millions off an alleged Pollock she bought at a thrift shop, the film explores the ambiguities inherent in the validation of a piece of art. While art experts claim the painting is a cheap knock-off, the woman and her family hire forensic scientists to prove the work to be Pollock’s based on fingerprint analysis. Despite the high-brow art world’s unwavering refusal to acknowledge the art as legitimate, bids for the drip painting go from $2 million to $9 million. (As of last reporting, the painting was still awaiting higher offers.)
Ultimately, “Exit,” “Kid” and “Pollock” leave the question of their art’s authenticity up for the audience to decide — it’s actually this ambiguity that helps construct the films’ central conflicts and mysteries. But by the movies’ final frames, a few things become clear: quality art is difficult to define, the people who buy it (and buy into it) are often ignorant about what makes it worthwhile, and the background of the artists may be more important to observers and consumers than the artwork itself. There may be no more ironic display of such misguided celebrification and misunderstanding of art than the array of young L.A. hipster-fashionistas in “Exit” captured on camera declaring brand-new art-star Guetta’s laughably derivative debut show “a revelation.”
These issues are nothing new in the art world, of course. “It’s always been there,” says arts journalist David D’Arcy. “You’re not just selling a work of art for what it is; you’re selling it as an abstract painting by a child. It’s not so different from selling a painting by a serial killer. You’re selling an autograph,” continues D’Arcy. “When Basquiat died of an overdose in 1988, it had to be his shrewdest career move. Modigliani, Frida Kahlo, same thing. You can sell martyrdom. Would these pictures mean anything if we didn’t have the biography? It’s almost like having the footnotes.”
If personality has supplanted quality, who gets to determinate art’s “quality” in the first place? Or to borrow the title of another recent doc, about Henry Geldzahler, the Met’s first curator of contemporary art, “Who Gets to Call It Art?”