Spoiler Warning: I didn’t think that I could deliver a good review of this film without spoiling some plot developments, developments which the movie clearly intends to surprise you with. If you haven’t seen it, proceed at your own risk.
When it comes to the creative fields, a lot of people think the question is, “what is art?” Personally, I used to ask a different question: “what are people looking for from art?” This is because the existence of art is based upon the existence of an audience: if I write a great painting or record a great song, and then destroy it immediately afterward, there’s no one to judge whether art was created. There’s only me, and I may not be reliable. So I thought that you really needed to ask yourself what other people see in your art.
Then the 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop turned that whole viewpoint on its head.
The film is the story of a movement and a man. The movement is street art, which takes a graffiti sensibility and applies modern art to it via stencils, stickers, constructs, or other items. The man is Thierry Guetta, a French clothing dealer living in Los Angeles who bumbles his way into the very heart of the street art community.
Guetta films everything that happens in his life, and soon he is the only person with a video record of the creations of famed street artist Shepard Fairey (years before Fairey created this famous poster of Barack Obama). From there Guetta finds his way into the inner circle of the mysterious British street artist Banksy, in part by claiming to both Fairey and Banksy that he is a documentary filmmaker. Guetta is the only person with a video record of Banksy’s famous stunt at Disneyland in 2006, when he planted a doll dressed as a Guantanamo detainee inside the ropes of one of the rides.
So far, so good. As a part of its satirical, subversive nature, street art is not always going to be recognized as art by the people who are looking at it. So a documentary is useful to show people what goes into the creative process, how it grew, and the nature of the satire. It’s a good way for an artist to let people know what he wants them to look for in his art, as well as a good way to expose it to people who would look for that kind of art but didn’t know it existed.
The complication is that Guetta is not a filmmaker. He just loves to tape things, and he’s not great at it; Banksy has said that thousands of hours of footage went into a few seconds of on-screen time. His documentary is most certainly not art; it’s more or less unwatchable. So Banksy took his footage and attempted to turn it into a coherent movie; that’s why he, and not Guetta, is listed as the director of Exit Through the Gift Shop. To keep Guetta away from it, he encouraged Guetta to become an street artist himself. Guetta knows exactly what the street art audience is looking for: Banksy, Fairey, and others. So that’s what he creates, under the pseudonym Mr. Brainwash. The second half of the film is Mr. Brainwash’s attempt to establish his derivative art as the real thing.
This is where my sensibilities were turned on their head. The street artists in the first half of the movie put in a lot of work and toiled for years in obscurity; however, their audience doesn’t know that, and neither do they know it about Mr. Brainwash. So the interviews with people who like Mr. Brainwash’s art are very revealing: they assert that he has put in the work, because he asserts it. It turns out that, just as I might be unreliable when I claim that I’m awesome, the audience’s beliefs about me are unreliable too.
In fact it has been claimed in some circles that the entire movie is unreliable, a prank played by Banksy and Shepard Fairey on the entire world. (Here’s a typical example). The benign version of the claim is that when Fairey met Guetta, he saw the chance to encourage him into the film’s shenanigans, much as has been accused of another 2010 documentary, Catfish. The more extreme version is that Banksy and Fairey chose Guetta, and engineered everything that he did and filmed, as a commentary on the art world. The looney-bin, Obama-birth-certificate version is that Guetta himself is Banksy, but that seems provably untrue.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. There are so many documentaries these days which preach to us, about everything from the Iraq war (No End In Sight) to the public school system (Waiting for Superman). Those films may be well-made, and their claims may be true, but I still think there’s something unseemly about a documentary ordering its audience to think a certain way.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is not one of those movies. In fact, even if the film were a hoax, I still think it’s a documentary in the truest sense: we are shown the art, and shown the reaction. Whether or not Mr. Brainwash is another Banksy construct, that reaction is real. Everything else – the gullibility of the art world, the absurdity of Guetta’s entire experience – is inferred by the audience. The very fact that the movie could be considered a hoax is actually its ultimate artistic accomplishment; the movie succeeds so well in showing us the subjectivity of art that its own status as art is unclear.
The film is not perfect, and does display a slight bias; calling street art the biggest underground movement since punk rock seems a bit of a stretch. However, it displays such a deft touch with its material that I imagined someone, somewhere, watching this movie and thinking it to be an uplifting story of Guetta’s artistic triumph. And then somewhere else, I imagine Banksy enjoying a good laugh.
Reviewed by Mark Young