Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Banksy

Mister Brainwash, limited edition print for a London show.
Mister Brainwash (aka Thierry), Marilyn-Spock.

[Alert: every spoiler possible plus a bad attitude] I guess the movie is old news to everyone else, but I just saw Exit Through the Gift Shop last night. Banksy directed this documentary about a French man living in LA who decided to make a documentary about world-famous street artists like Banksy, Space Invader, Shepard Fairey and (I reluctantly mention) Borf. But the French-LA man, Thierry, was not a film-maker, and when he showed his weird-ass experimental film to Banksy, who had trusted this man with his secret identity, etc., Banksy felt that his trust had been broken. So Banksy made a film about Thierry instead.

We see Thierry the humble roadie following the famous street artists, filming and helping and putting his ass on the line. We see his wife (!) and kids (!) at home worrying about how to make ends meet while Dad roams the streets of Paris with a bunch of punks. We see him explain how he got into filming with a sad and genuinely touching story about how his mom died when he was a kid and now he wants to capture everything because he worries it will escape him as did his mother. The street artists are interviewed, Thierry the lovable imp entertains us, and then Banksy reveals: Thierry had ripped them off, fooled them into thinking he was a filmmaker. I thought, "Oh Thierry, you stupid jackoff. Look at your stupid film." And then we see Thierry go and mount his own uppity art show. Suddenly he thinks he's an artist. He takes out a second mortgage on his house to hire local starving artists to make pieces based on his instructions. They make a LOT of artwork. He gets a show, and markets it. REALLY well. The guy is, as it turns out, a good showman, and a risky but confident businessman. "Oh Thierry," I thought, "You uppity Frenchman. You're practically stealing the work of REAL artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey and SELLING it at a massive profit! That's capitalism for ya--whoa, you just made over a million at your first show! Bastard. It's like the emperor's new clothes. Everyone around you knows it."

But at that moment I remembered, "Hey, Banksy directed this thing. Could it be a little... biased?" I considered the interviewees: wouldn't Banksy's friends share his opinion? Wouldn't low-paid artists resent their rookie boss? Wouldn't Thierry's fans sound like morons, since most random people off the streets of LA sound like morons? Hmm. And look how Banksy focuses on how Thierry (gasp!) didn't make the work with his own hands. And look how he shows Thierry thinking about (gasp!) making a living. Look how he's pretending to be an artist.

Wait a minute, though: didn't Thierry just spend years as a sort of apprentice to the best of the best? Hasn't he been making videos his entire life? And wasn't his work they just showed really witty and entertaining?

When the film opens Banksy explains that Thierry wanted to make a film about him but Thierry was just more interesting than Banksy, so the film was about Thierry instead. But now I'm thinking it was a little more malicious than that, more like, "Hey let's turn the camera back around on that traitor Thierry and see how he likes it!"

By the end of the film I had formed some opinions on both men. Thierry seems maddeningly irresponsible, charming, egotistical and full of joi de vivre. He seems like a real artist who thinks had about what he creates, like the director of a play. I enjoyed how he mixed graffiti with a very Warhol-looking pop-art language. He, perhaps unwittingly, mixed two bitingly ironic forms of art into a vernacular that is very appropriate and sincere for a man his age, his socioeconomic status, his town of LA. Wouldn't it deserve a big old eye-roll if a relatively well-off middle-aged white dad decided to go undercover and become a anarchy-touting graffiti artist?

And Banksy. That man is way too rich, famous and adored by the entire fucking world to play the underdog. The irony of a graffiti artist who uses other people's property without asking and makes it his own, having his precious trust broken by an fan who isn't as experienced as he let on is a little much. And he's counting on an audience of seventeen-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds-at-heart who won't think too deeply about this. People who are just waiting to be told by someone they trust, "this is great art. This other stuff isn't." People who think they're rebellious but hold surprisingly conservative opinions: Artists should be too idealistically pure to make money. Art is only real art if the artist made it by hand. Ideas in art are fine, but only if contained in impressive displays of craftsmanship. Real artists are self-sacrificing geniuses of truth who look like a dictionary definition of a rebel. They're just waiting to be told that what they already believe is right. And they desperately want to be in on Banksy's joke.

At the end, both men seemed extremely common: adult children in the Neverland of an Art World already oversaturated with man-children.

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