Art is in the eye of the beholder. Unless that beholder is a know-nothing numbskull who can’t spot pop art trash from the work of a mature artiste.
That seems to be the attitude held by Banksy, the most famous street/graffiti artist in the world, and many of his top-rung colleagues. They struggle with the prejudices of “serious” art critics and patrons to have their medium recognized, shouting from the rooftops that their spray-can creations are more than acts of vandalism. They run into a bit of trouble when those critics confront them with an inexperienced hack like Thierry Guetta, who capitalizes on the sheeple of the art world, churning out rip-offs of the work of greater artists which eager viewers, not knowing any better, snap up for tens of thousands of dollars.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. For Exit Through the Gift Shop is the story of Theirry Guetta, that most peculiar Frenchman with the 19th-century facial hair and mouth like an outboard motor, and it is not until quite late in the tale that Guetta stumbles upon his shocking success. Guetta, we are told, was an eccentric businessman with his own clothing retail shop and an obsession with filming. Not with making movies, mind you: we are shown a room piled high with boxes upon boxes of Guetta’s tapes, the vast majority of which Guetta simply filmed on and then never watched again. On a visit to his cousin’s, however, Guetta discovered a new purpose for his constantly rolling camera: for Guetta’s cousin is Invader, a prominent street artist who has covered over 35 cities across the world with his small tile mosaics depicting characters inspired by the video game arcade classic Space Invaders.
Guetta began filming his cousin’s exploits, and, claiming that he was filming a documentary that would capture the spirit of the street artist movement for a worldwide audience, used Invader’s connections to meet nearly every famous street artist in the world. He became an invaluable assistant to many of these artists, helping them with carrying supplies, scoping out the best spots for their work in unfamiliar cities and keeping an eye out for police. In particular he worked a lot with Shepard Fairey, who would eventually gain wide renown for that often-parodied “Hope” image of Barack Obama. But Guetta always had his sights set on Banksy, the international prankster-artist who dared to paint on the West Bank wall, who casually walked right into the Tate, the Louvre and the Metropolitan and hung his own creations right next to the masters.
The first part of Exit Through the Gift Shop follows Guetta’s quest to find Banksy, and along the way we are treated to some fascinating footage of these artists at work. To ensure that their work is both noticeable and remains relatively permanent, street artists often climb to perilous locations, always under the cover of night. They risk bodily injury and police arrest daily. Try that, Picasso. These are easily some of the most interesting scenes in the film, and it’s a bit of a shame that the film moves its focus away from them in the second half. Still, with a subject like Guetta, you can understand why it does so.
When Guetta finally creates the long-gestating documentary he has supposedly been working on all along, the product is, essentially, utter crap. Banksy, who Guetta finally did cross paths with, takes Guetta’s tapes and decides to continue on the project himself, suggesting to Guetta that the Frenchman try his own hand at street art. Banksy is unprepared for the consequences, as Guetta immediately puts on a massive show in an abandoned television studio and sells his Photoshop-esque creations for big money, an overnight sensation.
There was wide speculation when Exit Through the Gift Shop was released that the whole thing was a hoax, that Guetta was an invention of Banksy meant as a comment on the absurdity of the modern art scene. Guetta seems like a caricature, too ridiculous to be true. But in truth, don’t we encounter people like that all the time? If it is a prank, it’s a damn good one, and one that the artist and his cohorts must have worked on for a decade. After all, Guetta’s show was real; it was written up in LA Weekly. And all that footage of the street artists at work is certainly real.
No, I think the film is real, and that Banksy (who insists on remaining absolutely anonymous; he appears in the film for several interviews, hooded and with voice obscured by a scrambler) simply recognized a captivating documentary subject when he saw one. I’ve outlined most of the “plot” of the film here, the general direction of Guetta’s narrative, but the man has to be seen to be believed. Is he a con man? Or just really that oblivious?
I believe that graffiti can be Art, the same way that film can be Art, and literature can be Art, and canvas painting can be Art. That is, just shooting a film on your home movie camera doesn’t make you an artist. Learning the skills and exploiting the medium’s potential is a much different story. But, it is an artistic medium just like any other. And like any other medium, street art has its Thierry Guettas in the same way film has its Michael Bays. Snobs like myself and Banksy and his pals can look down and criticize their work and claim it’s not Art as much as we want, but Art is in the eye of the beholder.
If Exit Through the Gift Shop fails in any way as a film, I think it is in the last ten minutes or so, when Banksy reveals his snobby side and rips into Guetta’s work, apparently trying, indeed, to criticize the modern art establishment for buying into this bunk. I think Banksy the director is unable to suppress his feelings as Banksy the artist. Rather than going with Banksy’s personal interpretation of the tale (which seems to be something of a Frankenstein parable), I prefer the take of a critic (I think; I honestly have forgotten who exactly he was, but I don’t believe it was another artist) interviewed at the end of the film who tries to summarize Guetta’s story: “I think, in the end, the joke is on…actually, I don’t know who the joke is on. I don’t even know if there is a joke.”
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars