February 2, 2011 by abbyo
In looking at the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary, it’s a little hard to fathom the appearance of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” on the list. On the one hand, it’s a documentary that isn’t all that spectacular, but got a lot of attention because of the man who made it, the famously anonymous street artist Banksy. On the other, it’s debatable that this is a documentary at all. More than likely, it’s an elaborate prank dreamed up by Banksy himself, with a laundry list of famed street artists in on the joke. And in this respect, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is actually a work of genius.
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French expat living in L.A. with his family. He discovers the world of Street Art through a cousin, who just so happens to be the street artist Space Invader, who makes mosaics of 8-bit aliens and pastes them up on buildings. Thierry, who’s got an affinity for recording video, follows his cousin around and records his work. Eventually he’s introduced to Shepard Fairey, the man behind “Obey” and that iconic Barack Obama campaign poster, and to Banksy, both of whom allow Guetta to film them working, and serve as a lookout for the cops. Thierry decides to become a street artist himself—and becomes successful, although his work is completely derivative of the artists he’s been hanging out with, and he doesn’t seem to have designed any of it himself, instead relying on a fleet of Craigslist-hired graphic designers.
While at no point is there an obvious clue that the whole story and Guetta’s rise to success are fabricated, the whole thing just doesn’t seem very likely. Guetta, for one thing, is a goofy, clumsy guy. He doesn’t seem capable of pulling off the kinds of stunts that Fairey or Banksy do. He spills paint. He runs into signs, and says things not even a narcissistic teenager would take seriously. Not to mention that he acts on his camera fetish to a ridiculous degree (the man films himself peeing, for goodness sake).
For another, there seems to be an obvious point at work in the documentary that Guetta’s eventual work and gallery show seems to underscore a little too conveniently. That is: very few people take the time to develop informed opinions about art. Before his gallery show, Guetta gets a big write-up in L.A. Weekly showcasing his work. He gets Banksy and Fairey to give him publicity quotes that he then pastes up on billboards. In short, he gets a lot of buzz built up around his show despite the fact that he’s only been working for a few months. He sells loads of pieces, a million dollars’ worth in the first weekend alone. On opening night, the line to get in stretches around the block, and the show itself continues successfully for two months. The people eat it up. Collectors roam the halls, picking out pieces for purchase. There are vox populi shots of attendees claiming Guetta’s genius.
But Guetta’s artwork is far from genius. It’s a cheap ripoff of Warhol, Banksy and Fairey for the most part. He takes Warhol’s image of Marilyn Monroe and switches out the face for Michael Jackson, Spock and a variety of other public figures. He makes Banksy-esque stencils of Elvis and alters photos and paintings by adding cheeky modern elements. But none of it really seems to have any meaning. It’s all such a hodgepodge of styles that Guetta doesn’t appear to have any discernable voice. Everyone at the show sings his praises, but nobody questions his motives.
So, if this is a joke (and I’m sure it is), what’s the punchline? At one point, speaking about Guetta’s successful show and fast-lane track to success, Banksy says that maybe Guetta’s example means that art is a joke. And maybe it is. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is full of people who take art very seriously, without really understanding it (Thierry being the prime example).
My favorite part of the film is a visit to the home of an art collector who later shows up at Guetta’s show. While showing off the pieces on her wall, she casually mentions that she has a Warhol gathering dust in her closet, and points out a Keith Haring hanging in a hallway, despite her claims that she’s not a Haring fan (in a documentary about street art, no less). Just before it is a scene of a Banksy sculpture selling for over $100,000 at an auction. Someone is paying thousands of dollars for what is essentially a well-constructed artistic practical joke. Both scenes are examples of Banksy having a laugh at the (grand) expense of people who don’t think for themselves, liking and buying what they’re told to without question, instead of what they actually appreciate.
So, should we, the audience, feel cheated if we find out later that “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and Thierry Guetta were a hoax, the way we did when Casey Affleck’s “I’m Still Here” was released earlier this year? Should we question Banksy’s authenticity, or accept the movie for what it is? I don’t think Banksy really cares what we do with it, although I suspect he’d think the people who didn’t catch on to his prank needed to lighten up a little. Winning an Oscar could either prove his point that most of us don’t read much beyond the face value of art, or reward him for lifting the veil.