Thursday 2 September 2010

On 'Exit Through The Gift Shop'

I just can't help myself. The more I think about 'Exit Through The Gift Shop' a film by stencil artist Banksy the more I get the whiff of bad faith and it's not a smell I like. That's not to say it isn't smart, at times thoughtful and always entertaining - it's just that it looks and sounds like someone who's done really well out of a fairly modest situationist-lite pop-art derivative complaining about all the factors that have allowed him to be successful. That's not terribly edifying.

The story is fairly simple. An amiable French caricature, Thierry Guetta, obsessively films a new and growing generation of street artists. Eventually the camera turns on him and the film becomes a document of his bombastic and derivative entry into the art world. It's very funny. Guetta, or 'Mr BrainWash' as he styles himself once he becomes an artist, is a classic comic creation. He has the lack of self awareness that makes for great mockumentary characters, the film becomes "Inspector Clouseau meets Spinal Tap with a spray can". Of course the 'is he, isn't he?' question is the viral heart of the film. Mister Brainwash looks very much like a comic creation, his history seems to coincide with that of the production of the film. He is both its subject an its creation and the ambiguity around whether this is a real documentary of not can only be good for box-office.

A lot of things ring just wrong enough to make you smell le rat. The main one for me, perhaps with an English ear, is the sound of Banksy's diction. His observations sound well scripted and badly acted, even with his voice going through a distorting filter it's clear that this isn't spontaneous speech. Some of the wrongness is probably imaginary, like the uncanny resemblance between Thierry and Rob Schnieder, but still distracting. It feels like a big in-joke. The fact that Mr Brainwash provided the cover for Madonna's album 'Celebration' makes you think like it might be. Throughout you can almost hear the smug laughter of celebrities imagining they're being transgressive.

There's plenty to like about Banksy. He's not just a smug post-pop arsehole he's genuinely witty (visually and verbally) and he uses absurd juxtapositions for the right reasons. His kissing coppers and Ramallah wall stencils are clever and righteous, they undermine power through wicked humour. He quotes from art history relentlessly but you sense that he's only doing it to create a shared objective base for the twist of satire he brings to his subject. That said it's undeniable that Banksy is a bit of a one line joke, the images are conceptual jokes that feel both right and wrong, you smile, maybe laugh and then they're gone. This film's a bit like that. Banksy can't be held responsible for the imitators who have followed in his wake but he can't pretend not to have benefitted from the street art boom. 'Wall and Piece', the book he published in 2005 is a bestseller reaching out to the alternative middlebrow coffee table market.

I don't have anything against anti-establishment artists making money, far from it. However I do have a natural inclination for intellectual rigour. Creating a crass talentless version of yourself and watching him succeed in just the same cultural and commercial milieu you thrive in doesn't seem all that smart. Thierry puts on a massive post-modern mess of a pop art spectacle. Of course people come to it, but that doesn't make them stupid.

Ostensibly the joke is on the art market. Prices for street art rise and rise and the implicit message in the film is "you idiots will buy ANYTHING". That might be a fair critique but it's one made fairly gently, it would have been interesting to see the kind of collectors who will pay millions of dollars to see what started on a wall put into a frame. Instead, particularly in the shots of the concert sized crowds waiting to get into MBW's show, the joke is on the great unwashed who've been lured by the bait of free art. It's a cheap shot but one supposes more comfortable than potentially upsetting the real money who buy the real Banksy.

So the film comes with a giant set of inverted commas. The ironies are trowelled on, but the one never explored is that we seem to be watching a rogue and anti-establishment art form complaining about how it has been commoditized even when many of the artists concerned, from Banksy himself through to Shepard Fairey have thriving industries based around them. It's a fairly conservative moan and even if the whole movie is an elaborate spoof it isn't a terribly radical one. I quite like the Banksy who picks big targets, who takes on power with pisstaking and releases a dangerous idea with a spraycan. Given the context of some of the fights he's picked 'Exit Through The Gift Shop' all seems a bit too smug and whingey.

1 comment:

  1. Well said.

    The film overall was a bit of a let-down in terms of expectations. All the footage of street art being made in the first half of the film made the second half drag on in comparison.

    That said, it was a compelling hoax in some cases. Fun to watch at times, but I'm not sure I'd pay money to see it. I guess you could say the same about alot of Banksy's street art.