We’d like to believe that “art” is, as Justice Stewart famously said about pornography in his Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) concurrence, hard to define, but “I know it when I see it.” In “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” “art” may just be what someone tells us is “art.” Can one individual ever have enough power to convince the world he is an artist?
“Exit Through The Gift Shop” (2010) – either a documentary or an elaborate hoax* by the notorious graffiti artist “Banksy” – begins as a biography of an endearing, fairly ridiculous L.A. vintage store owner, the French-born Thierry Guetta, and his obsession with filming, well, everything. A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, Guetta winds up following his cousin, the graffiti artist Space Invader, on his risky nighttime adventures in vandalism. Over the course of a decade, Guetta becomes addicted to filming the daredevil exploits of the most prolific graffiti artists all over the world, including Shepard Fairey (who designed the Obama “HOPE” poster) and Banksy, street art’s man-of-mystery, whom Guetta looks upon as a cross between hero and god. Believing that Guetta (who’s secretly only just a huge, huge fan) is making the definitive street art documentary, Banksy lets him film his normally clandestine stunts, such as hanging his own work in the Tate Modern Gallery and constructing an anti-Guantanamo display in Disneyland.
But the story twists when Banksy realizes that “maybe Thierry wasn’t actually a filmmaker, he was maybe just someone with mental problems that happened to have a camera.” Guetta, in turn, is no longer content to be merely the world’s biggest street art fan; he wants to be the world’s biggest street artist.
Adopting the moniker “Mr. Brainwash,” Guetta sinks his every resource into a hugely-hyped street art extravaganza, “Life is Beautiful,” that seems destined for catastrophe: it’s a comically amateur production stockpiled with Guetta’s ludicrous ripoffs of the most recognizable pop artists. But the show is a wild success. Banksy and the other street artists that Guetta once followed around like a slavish puppy are thrown into a morass of self-doubt about their own credibility, and the credibility of street art itself. “Exit” ultimately becomes a brilliantly multifaceted study, in turns hilarious and scathing, of the commodification of art.
This premise isn’t new by any means, but “Exit” is saved from being another grating “Fight Club”-esque send-up of consumerism because of the street art context. DBC Pierre once wrote, “In a world where you’re supposed to be a psycho, I just didn’t yell loud enough to get ahead.” Nowhere does this seem more apropos than in the world of street art. Graffiti artists are supposed to be lawless psychos – just look at their monikers: Invader, Neck Face, Swoon, Os Gemeos, Ces53 (several of whom are featured in “Exit”). And the work is rarely subtle; it screams from billboards and buildings in 30-foot dimensions, repetitions of artists’ trademarks replacing Nike swishes (like Fairey’s million Andre the Giants) or in stunts designed to cause the maximum commotion (like Banksy’s graffiti on the West Bank).
It is the very nature of street art to reward those who scream the loudest, who take the biggest risks, and, in that respect, Guetta was up there with the best of them. But isn’t it a prerequisite that street “artists” are supposed to be screaming something? Ideally even something of value? Or are they just fooling themselves at this point?
Whether the story of the rise of Mr. Brainwash is just an art world hoax or not, these questions matter to the street artists in “Exit.” The best – and funniest – parts of the film are the bemused musings of the other street artists after “Life is Beautiful.” They emote a real sense of pathos, and occasionally even jealousy. Banksy philosophizes that perhaps in a way Guetta is like Andy Warhol, who “kept repeating images over and over until they were meaningless…and now they’re really meaningless…” he trails off, dryly. The irony is that Banksy isn’t so different himself: His portrait of Kate Moss, a near-replica of Warhol’s Monroe, sold at Sothebys for £50,400. If Guetta had nothing to say, did Banksy? Fuck it, did Warhol?
Guetta is a pompous clown by the film’s end, but ”Exit” doesn’t rely on the Michael Moore-type potshots taken at Guetta and the trendy masses who pay thousands for his trendy pieces of shit to make its point. After all, one can’t think much of Warhol after reading his book, “THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol,” either. Rather, it is Banksy, Fairey and co. who bring freshness to these once stale questions. The film is a reminder to re-examine the merit of popular art from a most unlikely source: popular artists. “I used to tell people they should make their own art… I’m not going to do that anymore” says Banksy, with thinly-veiled amusement, “Maybe art is a bit of a joke.” And, above all, it is a message not to worry too much if you can’t quite figure popular art out, because perhaps none of us can. Banksy’s spokesperson has the best observation: “The joke’s on…I don’t know who the joke’s on, really. I don’t know if there is a joke.”
*More on this after I see Guetta’s, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash’s, ICONS exhibit reopening Saturday May 8th in New York City.