It's Been Real
Exit Throught the Gift Shop
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art. I used to think everyone should do it"¦ I don't really do that so much anymore."-Banksy

The question of what defines art is one that has been asked and argued over across centuries. It is an argument that will be held for the rest of time. And it is something that ultimately comes down to a matter of opinion, though whose opinion actually matters is a question also worth asking. All of these ancient debates are addressed in Exit Through the Gift Shop, and while no firm answers are proffered, its story is one that will linger in the minds of art fans and critics for a long time coming. Part of the fun of the film are the many twists and turns it provides, several of which I will spoil in the ensuing discussion, so be aware.

The film follows Thierry Guetta, an obsessive (and possibly mentally unbalanced) French man living in Los Angeles who filmed every moment of his life until a meeting with his cousin, the renowned street artist Space Invader, gave him a purpose. What began as a journey to document the Invader's work quickly grew into a poorly defined journey to capture the birth of a movement. Along the way, Thierry got caught up with the biggest names in the community, including Shepherd Fairey and Banksy, before eventually deciding to become an artist himself, selling over $1 million in art during his massive debut show.

All along, Thierry's motivations are in question, and he often admits that there was little to no reason behind any of his actions. He filmed thousands of hours of footage but never watched any of it; when he finally decided to edit his piece, he came up with a film called Life Remote Control that (from the footage shown in this film) looks like a madman channel surfing through footage. Banksy, upon seeing the film, asked to look over Thierry's tapes and, to distract him, suggested he try his hand at art, in the process creating a monster that would become known as Mr. Brainwash. Banksy claims that of the over 10,000 hours of footage they examined, mere seconds were usable.

The film that Banksy created out of the footage is nothing short of awe-inspiring, a fun, irreverent, wry and thematically rich examination of the DIY movement that is street art, what makes an artist great, and what delineates a true master of the form from a wannabe with a talented hype-machine. From a brilliant opening sequence that utilizes Richard Hawley's "Tonight The Streets Are Ours" over archival footage of street art being created to its deeply tongue-in-cheek conclusion, the film is as riveting as it is humorous. If all Banksy had accomplished was to put together a record of street art as a movement, his film would have made an invaluable contribution (most of the art shown in the film was removed or wiped away mere days after its creation). Yet he managed so much more than that, becoming instead a wry examination of Banksy's struggle to deal with the responsibility he feels for inspiring people like Thierry, and dealing with whether what endures about art is the image it depicts or the person who captures that image.

It is impossible to discuss the film without bringing up the allegations that the whole thing is an elaborate hoax by Banksy. Many people theorize that Banksy exaggerates the emergence of Mr. Brainwash as a "full-formed artist," and some even suggest that Banksy pushed Thierry to become an artist to make the exact point the film ends up making. Whether any of these allegations are true is impossible to say, but ultimately I don't think they really matter to the enduring meaning of Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Banksy set out to make a film about a movement and about how we define art, and ultimately he succeeded in both of those goals. He also manages to leave us with the question of who should get to define art. Most of the people interviewed at Mr. Brainwash's show seem to think they are witnessing the emergence of a great new artist and are ecstatic to be in his presence. That most of these people come off as incredibly uninformed, woefully ignorant or trying to spin the show as best as possible is part of the point: sure, these people are hardly art critics, but what makes art critics the ultimate decision-makers about what makes great art? Is it just elitist posturing for me to believe that art experts are better judges of a piece's quality and endurance than I? Is art, as Banksy wonders near the end of the film, just a big joke?

These are the questions that are being asked every day in art classrooms, in philosophical debates about the merits of creation and criticism, and in museums around the world as people struggle to understand and contextualize art as a medium. And in taking the time to grapple with them himself in a very public forum, Banksy has made Exit Through the Gift Shop one of the definitive considerations of these questions to appear in the last several years.

Read more It's Been Real here

Coming up on It's Been Real:

4/15: 8: The Mormon Proposition

4/29: The King of Kong

5/13: Helvetica

5/27: The Times of Harvey Milk
comments powered by Disqus