What is outsider art? Graffiti has long been considered the work of criminals, but the art world is perverse in its attempts to co-opt them. They’re happy to turn the anonymous or damaged into superstars, launching them into a world of art shows that sell prints for thousands upon millions of dollars. With Exit through the Gift Shop – Banksy’s one of a kind documentary – two of the main subjects are the popularity of outsider art and the meaningless of such attention. The credibility of the film has become a subject of discussion, and how much of the film is a prank is hard to know. But even if the whole film is lying to you, that too creates a truth. Heady questions for one of the best films of the year. My review of Exit through the Gift Shop follows after the jump.
If we are to take the film as a documentary, this is what it records. Thierry Guetta is a constant videographer. Known for videotaping his entire life (after a traumatic family incident), he runs a successful clothing shop. Through his cousin “Space Invader” he starts taping people doing graffiti and street art. Through this he hooks up with Shepherd Fairey, who is famous for creating the “Andre the Giant has a Posse” and the sequel “Obey” as stickers and graffiti. Thierry helps Fairey in doing his art, which leads Guetta to entering Banksy’s entourage. Banksy is famous in London for his art, which often has a political subtext, and is usually a comment on consumer culture. Having made his way in with Banksy, he’s asked to turn his footage into a documentary. Once Guetta is done cutting it, Fairey and Banksy can’t stand it. But by then Guetta starts creating his own graffiti, and with Banksy and Fairey offering juicy quotes about his work, Guetta sets up a gallery, which leads to a million dollars worth of his art being bought.
What is daunting about Exit is that everything (except the success) shown may be lies. Guetta’s career may have been an arranged prank, and this documentary is likely a way to “out” his creation as a joke on the art world. There is something hinky afoot.
Unpacking Banksy’s documentary includes understanding the director’s perspective, but also getting a macro view of outsider art. Having Banksy and Fairey two of the main contributors to the film, it’s fair to assume the whole thing is a prank – their prank. Both Banksy and Fairey reject Guetta’s art (or as he renames himself, “Mr. Brainwash”) as a watered down version of what they do. Since his work also went on to be incredibly successful, the joke is on the art scene.
What is great about the film is that – regardless of what is true or not – it offers an inside look at how they work: it’s a portrait of an artist as young terrorist. And from the street work, we can see the ingenuity of what they do, but also the labor and danger that goes into doing it (cops show up more than once). That’s why the film works, because there is a sense that the art being produced is real. But the narrative walks us through Guetta’s elevation and relations to the famous, and shows Banksy becoming a cause celeb (if the film is to be believed, Banksy mostly finds this funny). Exit through the Gift Shop is a reaction to that fame and success –what amounts to an art school student using street tricks to become rich – though it does little to explore the mythology and truth of who Fairey and Banksy are. This isn’t about them; it’s about the art world. And in the 21st century, authenticity is a thing of the past, or a version of unobtainium. There are few artists who can claim purity of vision and intent – especially Shepherd Fairey (who did work for the current president), and so the idea of graffiti is appealing because of its supposed authenticity.
On a base level, the film shows – if we take it all on the level – that there is no such thing as authenticity in the current art world. Guetta’s work was sponsored by Fairey and Banksy partly as a lark (if they are to be believed) and partly out of loyalty to a friend. They do not like his work, and they don’t like what he becomes. The second level is that of the filmmaker’s perspective, and that is the act of creating a fake icon for people to slobber over. The title of the film doesn’t play much purpose in the narrative, but it is the thematic concern – modern art is a scam, and it’s quickly turned into something safe. The outsider art becomes insider art with little to no effort, and the insiders have no idea what they are responding to but the newest, hottest, latest. The film is then an indictment of anyone who knows nothing about art, and is simply a poseur, much as Guetta’s Mr. Brainwash – set up to show the world they know nothing.
The next level is the one that recognizes Banksy and Fairey as bullshit artists as well. There whole prank on the art world shows that they are merely commentators. Snarky, but removed from having purpose beyond reaction. On this level the film might be the most truthful. Why these people are famous is absurd, and it’s not because they are great artists, but great thieves and foragers. Their work is no longer outsider at all, but like so many country musicians, a uniform to which to make them appeal to their base. But this is also part of the text, and the film works whether you actively hate the artists, or celebrate them, which is why it’s so compelling. Regardless of intention, the film is one of the best works of filmed art of its year.
Oscilloscope presents the film on DVD in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround. Much of the film was made with HD video, so quality is going to vary, but the picture quality looks as good as can be expected. There is no commentary, but there are a couple of included supplements – all video pieces. There’s four deleted Guetta scenes (6 in.), a scene of Guetta at the Cans Festival (7 min.), Guetta’s supposed documentary “Life Remote Control” (15 min.), which is way more proficient and interesting than Fairey and Banksy let on, and “B Movie” (14 min.) about Banksy. This is one of the best films of the year, and well worth searching for, regardless of your involvement. The DVD also comes with stickers and postcards.