There were several documentary films that came out in 2010 which toed the line between being real and being entirely fabricated, including the admittedly fake Joaquin Phoenix joke I’m Still Here, the we’re-sticking-to-our-guns-about-this horror/character profile Catfish, and the offering from avante-garde street artist (i.e. vandal) Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop. A lot of words have been put to paper, or computer screen in some cases, detailing the reasons why or why not Banksy’s film is a hoax. I’ll leave it to you to scour the internet for the most persuasive arguments. While most critics seem to agree that it’s a genuinely enjoyable film regardless of the story’s veracity, my opinion is that choosing to draw the focus toward whether or not the events which unfold in the movie are strictly real – a term which has become absurdly relative – by making this the story of the film, it obfuscates the deeper themes at play. What is art? What is the value of art? And yes, what is real?
On the surface, the movie is about Thierry Gulietta (pronounced “Terry”), a Frenchman who is said to have amassed a small fortune selling knock-off clothing in Los Angeles, then becomes obsessed with street art after he learns that his cousin is one of the big names in this underground world, Space Invader. It helps that, due to a childhood trauma, Thierry feels the need to carry a video camera around with him constantly. As our videographer follows his cousin around, feeling the thrill of placing video game inspired mosaics on public buildings without permission, his love for this sport grows. Invader introduces Thierry to a slew of other street artists, most notably Shepard Fairey, the guy behind the iconic “Hope” poster of President Obama (although at the time, his reach was much smaller). From Fairey, it’s just a hop skip and a jump to the biggest name in all of street artistry, the director of this film, Banksy B. Banksalot. While some of the artists on display initially feel a sense of trepidation at the sight of a video camera – a reasonable thing given that their work is, quite understandably, illegal – it is said that they usually come around due in part because of Thierry’s professionalism on the street and because their images are generally painted over within days. This is a way for their work to live on, man.
But is street art meant to live on? Let’s step back and take a look at the practice as a whole. These artistes come out in the dead of night to put their mark on walls, bridges, signs, streets, any piece of property that is visible to the public. They certainly are not unaware that their activity is frowned upon by the police, nor are they blind to the fact that their artwork is sure to be quickly concealed. What is the driving force behind this cadre of artists, then? Is it the adrenaline rush that comes from the night-time raids, or the brief moment of reaction in the daylight from pedestrians who witness the sight? Is it art for the sake of art? If so, why the need to create it in such a perverse manner? There is no shortage of canvas or paper in this world to put pictures down upon. Does the danger involved in the placement of street art make it a more serious venture than if it were framed and hung up in a coffee shop? Follow-up question: does the intrinsic danger of the act (Banksy, for instance, put several images on the West Bank barrier) make the work more valuable?
The title of the film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is a none-too-subtle attack on artists who use their work primarily for commercial gain. As the film progresses, the idea of street artists turning a profit from their acts of “rebellion” is lampooned as Thierry commits his own artistic vision to reality. These are the moments most open to the charge of hoaxism, as the images produced (the Mona Lisa with sunglasses, anyone?) are laughably trite, yet lauded as brilliant by the people who come to view them. Banksy, as the voice of “reason” in the madness, says the words we are all thinking: that these paintings ultimately look like everyone else’s. If Thierry creates art which imitates other artists, which in fact steals their images entirely, is it really art? Or rather, to return to the real question at hand, what is its value? I’m not talking about its value in dollars and cents, although the exorbitant sums that our director’s own work has sold for are a testament to the more, ahem, practical value of the pastime. Pretty much anything can be labelled “art”, as a trip to any, ahem, contemporary art museum can attest. But is there as much to gain from putting a rusted shovel on the wall and calling it art as there is when you place a gigantic mural on top of a building in the middle of the night? Perhaps it all depends on what you are trying to accomplish.
After filming all of these street artists doing their thing for months and months, the moment of truth finally came for Thierry when he was directed to put the footage together into the documentary he had been promising all along. After culling the best bits from the hundreds of unedited tapes that he had collected in boxes in a basement, Thierry came up with a film which he titled “Life Remote Control”, a surprisingly slick and heady montage of images flashing over one another on-screen in a dizzying array of color and sound. Banksy dismisses it as the work of a madman. In a way, the manner in which “Life Remote Control” butchers the mundane (if otherwise unique) footage that had been shot and throws it up onto the screen haphazardly, vandalizes (scandalizes?) the vandals. Street artists put their mark onto public property, and here Thierry took their property – indeed, their very lives – and spliced it up into a gorgeous mess. Is it less real if it was commissioned by Banksy himself rather than by Thierry’s own resolve? Thierry’s work is called at times brilliant, awful, or boring. Is only one true? Or does value only come in the response to the work? Would Banksy’s art lose its edge if it wasn’t painted on elephants, so to speak?
Many a museum will have you stand and look at the exhibits in admiration, then force you to exit through a gift shop. It is in that moment that the items on display go from being abstract expression to physical commodity. It is in that moment, where if a piece touched you in some way, you are forced to decide what value to place on that feeling monetarily. You can walk away from a painting in a museum, you can wash away a drawing on the sidewalk, but here is when it becomes the most real. The emotion transforms into something concrete in a print, in the exchange of dollars for doodles. Or is it real? Many people will watch this movie and wonder “what is real?”
Yes. What is real?