Belgian artist Rene Magritte’s painting, The Treachery of Images (1928), famously features a painting of a pipe with the words painted below, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” or, in English, “This is not a pipe.” The meaning juxtaposed between the image and the text is, simultaneously, confounding and obvious. What do you mean it’s not a pipe? I see one right there quickly translates to, Of course it’s not a pipe. It’s merely a collection of painted colors and shapes that give the impression of what I associate as pipe-like. This landmark work of Surrealism, then, takes the medium itself – painting in particular, and art at large – and makes it unavoidably present. Art can only represent reality, not be reality, but what a deceiving representation it has the power to be.
There is the belief that art can elude, confuse, and manipulate meaning just as readily as it can reveal truth and reality to us. There is the alternate belief, however, that the illusion of reality and truth manifested through art is its most deceptive function. There’s a lot to be said about this subject with respect to Banksy’s street art documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, and here are what amount to, for what its worth, my two cents.
The Art Documentary
The term “documentary” functions in Exit, and contemporary documentary filmmaking at large, not so much as a synonym for “nonfiction” as simply a genre. And the art documentary itself appears to be a growing subgenre all its own, as recent years have found docs devoted to icons like Jackson Pollock or Louise Bourgeois, while other docs have turned their lenses onto greater subjects within the scope of the art world itself, like The Art of the Steal, The Rape of Europa, and My Kid Could Paint That. But what films like Exit and, to a lesser extent, My Kid Could Paint That address is the fact that the filmed work of art creates yet another mediated barrier between the observer and the artwork, and yet another between the observer and the supposed connection to reality that the artwork aims to represent (or, the metaphorical “pipe” that the “painting” is so clearly not).
It is in this respect that the art documentary can only be a documentary in genre terms, not investigative ones, for the camera operates as barrier that so easily eludes one further from truth instead of clarifies. The fact that the subject of so many of these docs is modern art or abstract art – a form/style that often seeks to render recognizable objects grotesquely unfamiliar – cements this distance. But the worth, the insight, that these films carry with them, either intentionally or unintentionally, is that, by bringing to the forefront this schism, this lack of knowledge (the knowledge that the painting is not a pipe and, once projected onscreen, is not really a painting either), it forces one to question the system by which art is valued, the questionable roles of authorship we ascribe to modern art, and finally the problems that the selective eye of the camera have in delivering any semblance of truth.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The problem of authorship as presented through the film is a direct reflection of its subject at hand. Street art is a form that radically tears the walls down between art and its accepted mode of display, decimating the boundaries of the private museum and forcing artistic expression to interact with the pragmatism of the public sphere where such class and taste delineations aren’t as apparent. The reason Banksy is so sought after by the “filmmaker” at Exit’s center, Thierry Guetta, is because he has developed a reputation of interacting with the public space in a particularly striking and confrontational way, cementing street art as something that inevitably loses its function when taken out of such a space and segregated to the gallery. The power of Banksy’s work is localized, specific to the exact public location of its display, as exemplified by his notorious work in Disneyland and the West Bank, both featured in the film.
But by existing in the public space, such art can’t be preserved in the traditional sense, which makes the evidence on Thierry’s camera all the more valuable. Likewise, while a signature is undeniably important for street artists in cementing their persona or alter ego (the space invader for Space Invader, the “OBEY” icon for Shepard Fairey), the role of authorship doesn’t contain the authoritative and consistent thread it possesses in gallery work. One can hardly copyright what is, in effect, an act of vandalism, and this need for anonymity combined with the short-lived nature of the works means that the artist hardly “owns” their work – the portfolio is never stable and copycat artists can exist.
A haphazardly spraypainted text on an anonymous English wall greets us with the words “Banksy Sold Out” as Banksy’s reputation is introduced in the film. For all we know, and as the juxtaposition suggests, this could’ve been done by Banksy himself – but one can hardly make evidence of such things. Similarly, the title “A Banksy Film” commanding Exit’s opening minutes possesses questionable authority, as the ownership of whatever Exit is becomes traded around through its creation and, ultimately, the documentary becomes more about the making of itself than the subject it originally set out to capture. Banksy seems to shrug off ownership in his interviews, even as the persona behind the camera in these interviews is never revealed (it is polished and, inferentially, not Thierry’s) and as Rhys Ifans’s voiceover could easily be a substitute of the artist’s framing of the story.
Of the many viable locations where Exit Through the Gift Shop could operate as an elaborate hoax, to me the most evident and potentially subversive moment of trickery could be Thierry’s Life is Beautiful exhibition chronicled in the film’s final third. Thierry has been so thoroughly characterized as a buffoon up to this point that it seems impossible he could pull off such an elaborate feat, and all the while I couldn’t help but think that Thierry’s “work” could actually be some sort of Banksy/Shepard Fairey hybrid. If this were the case, Life is Beautiful ultimately operates as an extension of the supposedly self-written “Bansky Sold Out” sign, a satirical meta-signification of the feared selling out of street art – its movement from the public to the private, from an inclusive to elite status. In the fear of their decisively anti-authoritarian art form (an art form that rejects the signposts of ‘expert’ definitions of artistic worth) becoming as commodified as high art (a fear that inspires the film’s title), Banksy and co., intentionally or not, have created a monster of commerce in Thierry (as one who appropriates rather than creates, manifesting a Warholesque factory manufacturing repeated signifiers of popular culture), and if his creation is deliberate rather than accidental, the hoax is not necessarily on the film viewer, but the art world at large. Exit at the Gift Shop ultimately functions as a document of the hoax, whose exact details remain both transparent and elusive. One may conclude then, in Exit Through the Gift Shop’s capturing of the hoax, that the film is not the hoax.