It doesn’t take a street art aficionado to recognize Banksy’s distinctive and transcendent work. For years this subversive genius has delighted pop-culture connoisseurs the world over. Banksy has also inspired a generation of bombers to take their artistic ambitions far beyond the now mundane idea of mere tagging.
Banksy cut his teeth as an artistic guerrilla, creating inspiring street art under the cover of darkness. Fans often had to hurry to see one of his installments since property owners were generally not eager to have incendiary graffiti displayed across their walls. Later on Banksy found legitimacy as a studio artist, selling his works for top dollar to delighted fans including Brangelina.
Through it all, this elusive virtuoso has somehow managed to maintain anonymity. Neither the prying eyes of journalists nor the prospect of fame and admiration have been able to lure Banksy’s true identity into the public eye.
Not surprisingly, a brilliant creative mind like Banksy’s had no trouble putting together an excellent documentary film. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is at times moving, bewildering, suspenseful and informative. A novice to the street art scene will get a great crash course in the medium as it lives today. Grizzled-veterans will enjoy interviews and behind-the-scenes looks at seminal artists like Shepard Fairey.
The film tells the story of Mr. Brainwash, a goofy French hipster named Thierry Guetta. Guetta has a yen for videotaping, well, everything. He entrenches himself in the street art scene and eventually (ab)uses the endorsement of Banksy and Fairey to present a warehouse-sized LA art exhibit that garnered both commercial success and critical scorn.
In the wake of its release, Banksy’s film immediately spawned conspiracy theories. Was Guetta a genuine person documented in the film? Was he a figment from one of Banksy’s impish flights of fancy? Was he Banksy himself? Let’s sort this out.
The story is authentic
The Case For: Banksy and Guetta both swear the movie is true. Someone even paid Guetta licensing fees for his footage. It is too far-fetched that so many people would put on a hoax for years just to make an independent film.
The Case Against: Actually, Banksy would so prepare for years to make such a film. No one is arguing whether or not the pop culture hyenas that gobbled up Mr. Brainwash’s work are gullible. But to conceive of an industrial art operation on the scale of Andy Warhol’s Factory days and pull off a show like that is a little too much of a fairy tale.
If he was so protective of his secret identity, why would Banksy work with a flake like Guetta? For that matter why would Shepard Fairey hang out with the guy? It is a little hard to believe that people at the top of their game would willingly associate with what the film portrays as an annoying, portly, little French clown. Unless, of course, Guetta is in on the hoax.
Guetta is Banksy
The Case Against: One can’t imagine they had the special effects budget to fit Guetta’s rotund torso into the hoodie seated in the interview chair. Furthermore Ron English suggested in an interview that Banksy discovered this treasure trove of footage in an attempt to protect his secret identity.
The Case For: You thought Banksy was a super-cool intellectual ninja? Surprise! He is actually just an annoying, portly, little French clown with a wicked knack for street art. That would be so Banksy.
Besides, when do you ever see Banksy and Guetta together? There is a little too much of a Batman/Bruce Wayne connection.
For example, Banksy appears to know and communicate with Fairey and the rest of the street art pantheon. Guetta gets to know the same group and spends time filming quite a few of the artists, even filming some putting up art illegally. It would be a lot easier to believe that they would give this kind of access to Banksy himself.
Guetta is acting
The Case Against: Guetta’s back-story checks out. According to an LA Times article, public records and interviews indicate the story has quite a lot of veracity. But Guetta has always been reticent to reveal just exactly how authentic “Exit Through the Gift Shop” really was.
The Case For: It would be easy to intertwine Guetta’s real back story into a farcical “rise of Mr. Brainwash” mockumentary. Getting to de-pants all of the pseudo-intellectuals in the LA art scene was too good of an opportunity for Banksy, Fairey, Guetta and company to pass up.
Why, you say, would Guetta ever want to play such an unflattering fall guy in Banksy’s epic hoax? Because now he has a reputation that gets him beaucoup ducats for doing things like spending five minutes making an album cover for Madonna.
As they say any publicity is good publicity, and Guetta got a super-sized helping from this movie.
Is this documentary real or is it fictional art in its most elaborate, prankumentarious form? The answer is yes to both.
Of course Banksy helped Guetta create the persona and art of Mr. Brainwash. Yet whatever their intentions were the art show, Guetta’s ill-fated attempt at filmmaking, all of the events in “Exit Through the Gift Shop” absolutely took place. Banksy made his name hijacking slogans and twisting common perceptions in uncomfortable ways. How is a revealingly dishonest, derivative portrayal on film that different from the portrayals Banksy paints on walls?
At its core, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a making-of documentary about one of the largest pranks anyone ever played on the commercial public, presented authentically itself as a prank. Banksy’s work of art this time was to turn Guetta into Mr. Brainwash (himself a viable artist), while simultaneously making a real-fake-real film about it. My head hurts.
But if we are lucky, maybe some day Banksy will decide again that the emperor needs another set of new clothes and make another film. I, for one, can’t wait.