There has been speculation about whether Exit Through the Gift Shop, directed by a mysterious street artist known as Banksy, is fact or fiction. Banksy himself is an elusive figure, anonymous, and much of his art seems to be about itself, created to be seen and to comment on the seeing; our reactions are his canvas. But after watching the film the question of reality seems irrelevant. Either way it’s about the same thing: the intangible nature of art, which may be created with thoughtless delusion yet be valued as a work of genius. Why? Because we’ve been convinced that it is, we convince ourselves, and then we convince each other. The art of this film is showing how art may be a blank page; whether a work of painstaking discipline or the hapless fumbling of a dilettante, if we imbue it with meaning it has meaning, and if we do not it does not. So whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is true or a complete fabrication is beside the point. Art itself is a joke, and the joke is always on us.
This is a fascinating, beguiling documentary that seems to be about one thing, turns out to be about another, and then we’re not sure it was about anything at all. It begins with a Frenchman living in Los Angeles, Thierry Guetta, who is a filmmaker only in that he owns a camera and turns it on. He compulsively records the events of his life, for no particular purpose, though the film points to a tragedy in his past: his mother died when he was eleven-years-old, and he wasn’t there for her final moments, so now he doesn’t want to miss a thing.
He becomes obsessed with street art. Under the false pretense of directing a documentary, he follows the artists as they ply their trade, which consists of repeated images and slogans displayed on public spaces. People will look at them, with clarity or confusion, gratified or outraged. These images may not mean anything at all like Shepard Fairey’s images of Andre the Giant, which Fairey himself describes as just an “inside joke," but through the curiosity of onlookers it generated its own power. The art had a life of its own, and Fairey’s inside joke won him stature in the art community. This theme is the key to the film.
In 2007, I saw another very good documentary about graffiti artists, called Bomb It, which made a revolutionary suggestion: that graffiti art is no different from commercial advertisements or naming rights. By this logic a developer like Donald Trump is a rampant tagger, buying up buildings and signing his name to them. Like graffiti artists, he does not ask for public approval when he signs his name across countless building fronts, but because he builds property and he assumes ownership not only of the building but of the public visual space. Graffiti rises up as a protest against what the artists consider a kind of corporate imperialism; they want to re-democratize what we see in the world around us.
The street artists in this film have much the same goals. One artist puts up images from the video game Space Invaders. When confronted by police, he asks why his work is considered graffiti. It’s a good question. He has not asked for permission to spread his artwork, but it is not radical iconography, incites no violence, contains no vulgarity. What could it seem to mean that so threatens the social order? The only power it has is what we give it.
Guetta’s greatest wish is to film and interview Banksy, the most high profile of all street artists. Up to this point Guetta is the ostensible director of the film, but when he crosses paths with Banksy and proves to be an inept documentarian, Banksy takes the reins and the film becomes the story of how Guetta transforms, through sheer force of will, into a giant in the art community.
Because of Banksy, street art underwent a seismic shift. After risking his life to create subversive artwork in the West Bank, street art gained a cachet that made it a fashionable trend for modern-art collectors. After Banksy held a wildly successful art show, street art evolved from counterculture to fad. This is not because of any difference in Banksy‘s content or approach. It is strictly a matter of public perception. Exit Through the Gift Shop may be, perhaps, Banksy’s meditation on society’s whims; one day he was considered a vandal, and the next he was making millions of dollars for that vandalism.
Banksy gives Guetta an assignment: to go home and make street art. All Banksy wants is to get Guetta out of the way so he can fix the documentary, but Guetta takes the suggestion and runs with it, and the film transforms. Guetta, who turns out to be one of the year’s most interesting characters, has no artistic ideas of his own. His technique seems to be to copy and paste the work of other artists into novel combinations. A hype machine is set up that works the art world into a lather. He is an overnight success. Banksy himself, whose face is hidden and voice scrambled to conceal his identity, comments on Guetta’s success with bemusement. So does Fairey. Visitors to Guetta’s exhibition ascribe meaning to his installations. Is there any meaning to be found? Who’s to say there isn’t?
Banksy, in making this film, playfully skewers his own medium. Guetta likes art, likes to think he understands it, and likes to think he can make it. He picks up his camera and decides he’s a filmmaker. He puts down his camera, picks up some stencils, heads to Kinko’s, and decides he’s a street artist. A lot of people believe the hype — “suckers,” Fairey calls them — but is Guetta any more a fraud than any other artist who makes millions? More than Banksy, who went from dodging the police to fielding offers from collectors?
I am aware of the irony of ascribing meaning to a film that seems to be about meaninglessness. But I don’t think Banksy is trying to discredit art. I think he’s offering a new perspective of it. It is the ultimate democratization of art: it has no meaning unless we give it meaning, and by giving it meaning, we make it art.
Watch a trailer for the documentary here: