documentating art in caves and on the street

Feb 29, 2012

I like to watch documentary films.  This past month I watched two documentaries about art- Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Exit Through The Gift Shop.  If you haven't seen these films, check out the trailers. 

Initially, the two documentaries seem to have very little in common.  One film is about ancient cave paintings and the other, street art.  But, as I've had a few weeks to reflect, I realized that Cave and Exit share a number of common themes regarding art.

The first theme involves the permanence of art.  The cave paintings of Chauvet [in France] are noted to be the oldest pictorial works of ancient time.  Scientists date the images to as far back as 35,000 years ago! Although some have questioned the dating methods used, we can all agree that the paintings are really old.  I find it fascinating that primitive art [essentially natural pigment and charcoal on rock] can last for thousands of years, and artists today are challenged with the integrity of modern art materials. 

Permanence has always been a core issue for artists.  Ironically, one modern form of art, street art, finds relevance in impermanence.  Exit testifies to this increasingly popular and very temporary art form, showcasing footage of notable street artists at work.  Like the early cave artists before them, street artists choose to display their works on walls.  But, these works are usually created in public urban spaces, so they are either promptly removed or left to decay with a dilapidated building.

Banksy, Los Angeles, 2011.  [image source:]

Another prevalent theme in both Cave and Exit is anonymity in art.  In both films, the identities of artists are passionately pursued. Even the director of Exit, renown street artist Banksy, remains anonymous today.  Anonymity is a way of life for many street artists, which is increasingly harder to achieve in today's very public culture.

Street artists choose to be anonymous, whereas the primitive artists of Chauvet are anonymous by the lack of a written language.  In Cave, the work of one cave artist was distinguished from the others by the repeated use of his hand print.  Archaeologists were able to track his work throughout the cave because of the imprint of a crooked pinky finger on the right hand.  This particular story struck a chord with me because I have a crooked pinky on my right hand as well [thanks to flag football].  Although we will never know the name or face of this early artist, his hand print with the crooked finger is his signature and identity.

Both films, Cave and Exit, document the creative nature of man.  When the first shots of the Chauvet images came across the screen, I was mesmerized by the beautiful details and craftsmanship of the line drawings.  Some of the animal drawings were layered or repeated, as if to show movement and action.  Clearly, the prehistoric art in Chauvet Cave is evidence of man's innate creative ability.  We are wired as humans to be inventive, inspired, and expressive. 

Exit celebrates the unique art and passion of street artists, but the film is really about one man's fascination with street art and his emergence as a street artist himself.  Although the self-proclaimed artist mimics the style of other artists, his debut in Los Angeles is a big success.  By the end of the film, Banksy leads us to the age-old question, what is art?  And is a penchant for art enough to call oneself an artist?  The featured artist even states at the end of the movie that only time will tell if he's a real artist . . . perhaps in another 35,000 years. 


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