Faking it

January 17, 2011

One night this Christmas break, I watched the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Banksy Film. I was absolutely fascinated, and when I watched it again a week later, it was just as good. The documentary tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman obsessed first with video-taping graffiti artists (in the guise of a filmmaker) and then with becoming one himself. In the first half of the film, Guetta shadows two famous street artists: LA-based Shepard Fairey, and Banksy, a notorious British artist whose identity is unknown (his face does not appear in the movie and his voice is distorted). Fairey is best known for his Barack Obama “HOPE” posters, and Banksy for his politically-themed installations illegally placed inside the British Museum, near a ride at Disneyland, and along the Israeli West Bank Barrier (to name just a few).

But the movie is really about Guetta. At one point, Banksy flippantly tells Guetta to try street art himself, and, seemingly overnight, Guetta does just that. He creates the moniker “Mr. Brainwash,” and after very little practice on the streets of LA, decides to have an art show. Guetta re-finances his house to pay for a studio and for a crew to print and build all his installations (created mostly by looking through books of other people’s work and changing the colors around) for him, while he focuses on “hype.”

Guetta has very little artistic vision behind his work, and it is clear to everyone watching the documentary that he is simply mimicking what he has seen Fairey and Banksy do (when asked the messages behind certain pieces, his explanations are painfully shallow). But, shockingly, after the first week of his show, Guetta has sold almost a million dollars’ worth of art and his pieces go on to show in galleries around the world.

Is Guetta’s work art? If his buyers realized how little of himself he actually put into it, how little he had to say about it, would they still pay tens of thousands of dollars? Or is a work of art’s value found solely in the piece itself, and the artist’s thought process completely irrelevant?

In the documentary, both Shephard Fairey and Banksy were surprisingly gracious towards the man who had seemingly cheated his way to the top of the art form which they had each spent years establishing. Though Banksy calls Guetta’s art “meaningless” and says it “looks like everyone else’s,” he also acknowledges that in art, there aren’t supposed to be rules.

Though it seems more unlikely that someone could pull of a best-seller by simply mimicking a great novelist, the writing world has encountered a few “fakes” of its own.

Take, for example, James’ Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces. Frey first submitted the book as a fiction work, but when publishers refused him, he decided to call it a memoir instead.  When journalists began to question the validity of certain parts of the book, like his time at a drug rehabilitation center and the suicide of a girlfriend, Frey admitted that much of his account was exaggerated or untrue.

So what about Frey’s book? Does the fact that he made a lot of it up make it worthless? (Admittedly, I didn’t really care for his writing even when I thought it was real, but I was outnumbered. It topped the New York Times Bestseller List for fifteen weeks straight).

Dave Pelzer, author of A Child called “It,” is facing similar accusations of fabricating his own memoir. In it, Pelzer claims that his mother viciously abused him as a child, constantly starving him, making him eat his own vomit, and even stabbing him in the chest; Pelzer’s family says he is an attention-starved liar.  (And their accusation is made more convincing given that Pelzer’s website says he is a “Pulitzer Prize Nominee,” which is simply untrue. He did, however, submit his memoir to the Pulitzer committee, which anyone with a spare $50 can do).

It could be argued that Guetta is better than Frey and Pelzer: they both lied about where their work came from; he never did. On the other hand, Guetta’s work (which was actually done by his crew) simply mimicked other artists; Frey and Pelzer both wrote their books themselves. Surely none of these men are respectable artists, but what does that mean for their work?

I’m not sure. At one point in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy wrestles with this question. He sits back in his chair, arms crossed, and after a reflective pause, says, “I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.”