What is art?
That eternal question hovers beneath “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” a new film amorphously attributed to Banksy, the iconic-yet-anonymous British street artist. The first half of the movie details the history of street art – don’t call it graffiti – through a cache of old tapes made by Thierry Guetta, a vintage clothing store owner who documented the early days of the genre. Then, suddenly, the camera flips to follow a different story: Mr. Guetta himself. More specifically, his transformation from a likable but untalented and unknown filmmaker, into the somewhat-likable, still-untalented, wildly-successful artist known as Mr. Brainwash.
His rise is so unbelievable that we arrive at a more immediate question: Is Mr. Brainwash real?
The question has simmered ever since his 2008 debut show generated heavy buzz despite his lack of any discernible talent other than generating heavy buzz. The pieces were, to use the art world’s harshest curse, derivative (Elvis prints, Campbell’s Soup spray cans), and his sudden success confounded many. Is he an actor, a creation of Banksy’s meant to critique the nature of success in the art world? Is he Banksy himself, unmasked?
Banksy’s reputation for stunts gives credence to the conspiracies: there was the inflatable Gitmo detainee hung next to a Disneyland roller coaster and the images of a sunny beach tattooed onto a West Bank security wall.
Earlier this year, Mr. Brainwash produced his first New York show, (more Elvis, more spray cans) where New York tried to nail down his identity:
Plenty say this feels like a prank. Can you prove it’s not?
What do I do to prove? To live my life? One day for me is one life. The next day is another life. It’s not important what people say.
It will become important if a significant number of people come to your show saying it’s a prank.
By Banksy, yeah? Yeah, yeah, this is something, but it’s like what I’m going to do? If I do it, it’s my heart and I believe. I’m a guy who believes above all. I believe in God.
Sure, you believe–but are you playing a role?
No. No playing a role… It depends on the role.
Hmmm, no answers there. The Times took up the crusade this week, talking with Shepard Fairey, of Obama “Hope” poster fame, and one of Guetta’s earliest film subjects. He told The Times: “Of course the more I try to say it’s all true, the more it sounds like I’m somehow perpetuating the conspiracy.”
I suppose this is where we recommend seeing the movie, which is quite enjoyable, and deciding for yourself. Whether the art world has bought into a man or a myth, the point is the same: maybe talent and creativity are optional. Or, as an associate of Banksy’s puts it in “Exit”: “The joke? The joke is on, hmm … I don’t even know that there is a joke, really.”