- Exit Through The Gift Shop: Bullshit or Not?

Exit Through The Gift Shop poster

Modern art often gets something of a bum rap. And frankly with graduates from trendy art colleges getting bundles of cash that would choke a sperm whale for sticking a pair of melons on a chair and calling it a feminist statement, it’s not hard to understand why. However amid these new Brit Art sensationalists and their tired cracker joke “conceptual” art works, while Damien Hirst and co. where raiding Dewhursts the Butchers for artists’ materials and denting Saatchi’s bank balance, a new hot name emerged - Banksy.

Although sometimes lazily bundled in with the concept crowd Banksy, and other so called “street artists”, are a very different breed. Although his works may share a similar sense of subversion and provoke questions whether they are in actually art or just jokes, Banksy is literally streets ahead of most recent conceptual art. Firstly his work has gained critical kudos outside of the usual right art school to hip gallery route. Secondly through his rise from the grass roots he has gained popular appreciation too; with his art work appearing in public places he has brought art to the masses and built a following from ordinary people who normally have nothing to do with art exhibitions. And thirdly, his work shows real craft.

And this final point is not to be underestimated. As the astute reader can probably guess, I have limited time for conceptual art. And while some works such as the Chapman Brothers oeuvre is consistently interesting, many others strike me as lazy and one dimensional. To pick a famous example, Damien Hirst’s pickled shark is only vaguely qualifies as art because of the pretentious title it bears “The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living”. And that’s the sum of its artistic merit – some one had the balls to stick a museum exhibit in a gallery, whack on a massive price tag and faux intellectual title and call it art.

Now there is the old “I could have done that!/Ah but you didn’t!” argument but frankly to me, and indeed it would seem to many people outside the bubble universe of the modern art scene, this doesn’t really cut the mustard. So while no doubt some will award this endeavour more creative merit than I do, the problem is the art is purely in the concept - the physical object itself fails as art as you don’t need to see the piece in order to grasp said concept. And unfortunately the same goes for Tracey Emin’s bed and many similar works foisted on us by the Young British Artists and other conceptualists. Such works fail to create an striking image or merit a visit to see them in real life.

However Banksy’s work is doing far more than assembling any old tat and calling it art. Firstly there are proper old school creative skills on show – composition, draughtsmanship and brush work and secondly his concepts are far more intelligent and incisive and their placement adding further layers of complexity. Take for example this piece Naked Man -

Naked Man by Banksy

On a surface level it’s a marvellously amusing piece of trompe l’oeil that delights passers-by. However the image is given additional weight when you discover the wall it adorns belongs to a sexual health clinic – suddenly Naked Man becomes more than just an archetypal scene from classic British farces but a commentary on our attitudes to sexuality.

Hence a Banksy piece not only looks good as a print or poster but it gains impact and value when you see it in situ – as all good art should. And the fact that this piece was painted in a pubic space only goes to further impress when one considers the time and trouble it took to create it. Whereas you could take Hirst’s title card and go round the Natural History Museum, or even down your local supermarket and create countless new works of ‘art’ that make exactly the same artistic statement, which demonstrates just how inherently vacuous many concept artworks really are.

And while much such pieces rely on the cult of personality, with the likes of Hirst and Emin notching up far more column inches through their hobnobbing with the celebs du jour than actual discussions of the art, Banksy remains an enigma; we know very little about him or who he really is. In an age where the media is clogged up with people famous for being famous, Banksy’s staunch avoidance of the spotlight leaves us only with the work itself to concentrate on.

So then when I heard that Banksy was making a documentary entitled Exit Through The Gift Shop, I was obviously highly intrigued. Would this be the big reveal of his true identity? A chance to hear the man himself talk about his work? Better than Damien bloody Hirst’s directorial debut, the embarrassing arsefest that was Blur’s ‘Country House’ video?

And the quick answers are – No, no and absolutely yes!

Now first off, let’s address the elephant in the room which we have actually noticed as it’s crapped on the carpet – obviously there was never much chance of him unmasking but this is a very Banksy light film - if you are coming to Exit Through The Gift Shop hoping to learn anything substantial about him and his art, forget it. Visit the Wiki page instead.

Although we get an overview of the whole street art scene and fascinating footage such as Banksy pulling off the Disney Incident, this film is only tangentially about the mystery artist himself. Essentially this is a documentary about Thierry Guetta, an obsessive camcordist who was originally making a film about street art. And after documenting the work of several other prominent street artists, Thierry eventually managed to get in touch with the elusive Banksy. But the aerosol wizard found Thierry’s own story to be much more fascinating, and so documentarian and subject ended up switched roles.

The Disney Incident

However it’s not a case of “this is not the Banksy film you are looking for… Move along now”, as you can understand why this reversal of roles occurred as Thierry’s story is truly remarkable. We follow Thierry’s story as he begins contacting street artists and filming them at work. And as the film progresses we get to witness his transformation into a guerrilla artist in his own right, becoming Mr Brainwash. It’s completely intriguing, often funny and in the end quite inspirational.

So then it’s a good solid if somewhat offbeat documentary, and if you can get over the disappointment of it not being focused on Banksy himself, is very rewarding viewing. However as this a Banksy production, it’s not quite that simple...

...As many have alleged that the whole thing is one massive hoax and that Thierry Guetta/Mr Brainwash himself is an invention of Banksy and his elves. Now the evidence of these claims largely seem to rest on the fact that this is a Banksy film, and indeed this interpretation is largely favoured by those of feel that the Bristolian Man of Mystery is more prankster than artist and Exit Through The Gift Shop is a leg pull too far.

Several have pointed out the “damning” evidence that in the shots where Thierry is being interviewed on camera there’s a reproduction of the Laughing Cavalier visible in the background and point out the derivative nature of Mr Brainwash’s art. Hardly conclusive proof of hoaxing, I think you’ll agree. The appearance of Frans Hals’ famous portrait could just be a little joke in itself and considering some of the tired old bullshit art critics have been lapping up for years; conceptual pieces that are just lazily riffing on Duchamp’s urinal and Magritte’s Pipe, it seems a little unfair to suddenly be claiming that being derivate is a bad thing. You definitely get the feeling that perhaps the certain sectors of the arts world have taken umbrage to this piece by Banksy entitled “I Can’t Believe You Morons Buy This Shit”.

However as the film unfolds one does begin to wonder how much is actually true. There are several details and revelations that may start alarm bells ringing, but despite the received wisdom on the film being that it is a hoax, there’s nothing really solid to confirm the fake allegations. But does it really matter?

Just because Exit Through The Gift Shop may be deliberately messing with us, it doesn’t invalidate the film in the way some seem to think it does. Let’s consult an expert… But as this is a piece on Banksy we shan’t be consulting the likes of Brian Sewell, instead let’s see what Mr Nobody, the leader of The Brotherhood of Dada, a group of surrealist super villains, have to say on the matter of fakes...

Doom Patrol

from Doom Patrol #51 script Grant Morrison, art by Richard Case

So then in the light of this expert testimony, it seems clear that the whole Mr Brainwash circus cannot strictly be said to be a hoax or a prank, for even if Mr Brainwash and his works are a fabrication, they are still all Banksys! And in the world of modern art where the viewer’s own reactions and interpretations are so often left to endow trite conceptual pieces with the veneer of art, Banksy’s own intentions are quite irrelevant.

Harold Pinter was once asked about the socio-political subtexts of his play The Caretaker, and he replied that it was written purely as he heard the characters speak in his head and the story unfolded form there, and tartly added that if wanted to make a political point he’d have written a manifesto not a drama.

And this same impulse spurs on artists – it’s the desire to capture a particular vision, to show the world in the light they see it, and to bring into the world the imagery their imaginations create. By its very nature, visual art, whether it be a painting, sculpture or indeed a piece of graffiti, is a wordless medium and therefore any work that needs to be explained by its artist, that needs a gloss of theory and to be elucidated with sound bites in order to be appreciated by the eye is failing.

Now I am quite sure that Banksy is aware of the multiple interpretations that many be inspired by his works, however I am equally sure that that when he creates a piece, it’s the image that is paramount not some species of theorising. All his works are marked by a playful attitude and a sense of fun, and although there are undoubtedly different levels of meaning to be interpolated from any given piece, the essential creative spark is that the image amuses him primarily.

And viewing Exit Through The Gift Shop in this light, I don’t think the object of the exercise is to purely poke fun at the art establishment. Considering how the film is weighted, if Mr Brainwash is just an avatar of Banksy, the purpose of creating a ‘fake’ artist is probably more a satire on Banksy’s own rise to prominence, that strange journey from the streets to the galleries, than setting up an Emperor’s new clothes sting for the art world. The way the film is structured appears to me to showcase Banksy’s own feelings about art – that is should appeal to the public, that it should enrich the lives of ordinary people, that is should be entertaining, and most importantly, anyone can find a form of creative expression and become an artist. Rather than mocking the elitism of the art world, this film is stressing the egalitarian aspects of art; that art is in the eye of the beholder, so why not get up and give it go yourself!

And finally, regardless of how factual Exit Through The Gift Shop is, on a cinematic level it still works as a film. It’s solidly structured and there’s definitely some truth in there, and whether you accept it as fact or as fiction, it is equally effective. And whatever the truth actually is, this documentary/mockumentary (delete as applicable) presents a host of inspiring questions on what actually constitutes art and what it means to be an artist. And even if you have no time for smart arse aesthetic discussions, the film still delivers an off beat and truly fascinating story. And hence regardless of its veracity Exit Through The Gift Shop is far from bullshit.

JIM MOON, 12th October 2010