This entertaining pseudo-documentary mocks contemporary art’s commercial premises as well as the mystique of individual genius. Tom Jennings laughs at, and with, Banksy.
Bamboozling Contemporary Art. Film review - Tom Jennings
Banksy’s Barely Legal LA show (2006) saturated big-dollar red dots across his defaced Old Master prints and other hacked-up adbuster detournements travestying the kudos of high-cultural originality. This triumphant tapeworm entryism into the postmodern cocktail-party canon coexists with continuing illegal grass-roots graffitism, which similarly cannily exploits a more downmarket and less aesthetically supercilious populist sentimentality poking fun at po-faced guardians of public space and taste and their military-corporate complexes. But taken together these exploits also exemplify the ruthless guerilla marketing tactics preferred by cool late-capitalist brand operations, and his new film Exit Through the Gift Shop lays bare these (and more) connections with unexpected subtlety and force. Its conceit is to focus on the career of amiable French emigré Thierry Guetta, a Hollywood second-hand clothes shopkeeper whose obsessive home-videos contain unique nuggets of prominent street artists at work – thanks to testimonials from his cousin Invader who he accompanied around nocturnal Paris.
Connecting in California with Shephard Fairey (of Soviet propaganda-style ‘Obey’ and Obama’s ‘Hope’ fame) led to Guetta’s stint shadowing Banksy on the pretext of finishing his film history of street art. The first edit being – so we’re told – completely incompetent, Banksy sequesters his archive and suggests he tries his hand at an art exhibition capitalising on the ‘Mr Brainwash’ (MBW) camerahead stencils already plastered round the town. However, the prodigious output Guetta extracts from his hired artists is as witless as the attempt at a film – though his famous friends still provide promotional (anti-)endorsements (“Mr Brainwash is a force of nature; he’s a phenomenon. And I don’t mean that in a good way”) leading to LA Weekly front cover hype. So the derivative sub-Warholian dross in Life is Beautiful (2008), held in the disused Hollywood CBS TV studios, is wildly successful – prompting a Marilyn pastiche commission for Madonna’s greatest hits album design and further big-selling shows. Unsurprisingly, conspiracy theory blogslackers had field days speculating on the real deals behind MBW, Banksy, and now this film.
Ironically, Tamra Davis’ biographical Jean-Michel Basquiat: the Radiant Child – covering early hip-hop graffitists in 1980s Manhattan – premiered at the same Sundance festival as our non-history of street art. Neither the massive first-wave underground nor its feted exponents are mentioned – only current practitioners legitimised by artworld chitchat; significant omissions including Blek le Rat, the French maestro who Banksy elsewhere acknowledges accomplished most of his good ideas first, and London’s King Robbo with whom he enjoys ongoing adolescent bragging-rights tagging-feuds. Honest humility clearly has limits in a cinematic vanity-piece. But it does effectively counter the official culture industry’s imperialising incorporation of global street-art, showcased in major US and UK shows Beautiful Losers (2004) and Spank the Monkey (reviewed in Freedom, 16th December 2006) and Tate Modern’s belated lazy gesture Street Art (2008; whose corporate sponsorship Banksy shunned). These falsify the messy conflictual roots of the phenomenon in unruly resistance to urban alienation in favour of seamless bootstrap narratives of talented scum rising to the top – and such miserable cultural-capitalist fantasies Exit ecstatically debunks.
However, if its rationale is a thoroughgoing set-up, with the McGuffin of Mr Brainwash conceptually and materially orchestrated by Banksy, then it proves the abject surrender of modern art’s market, media and audience to superficial PR as well as the vulnerability of latterday documentary storytelling and authorial objectivity and integrity to similar corruption. More interestingly, if not purely a scam – taking at face value Banksy’s self-deprecating reflections on the struggle for expression and the painstaking melding of craft and imagination – it represents a case study of the voluntary (self-)recuperation of cultural oppositionality. Either way the film is still vastly more intelligent and illuminating than recent dreary telly documentaries about contemporary art – not to mention Duncan Ward’s pathetic Boogie-Woogie, purportedly a cinematic fiction satirising the Hoxton scene of bright young things moving, shaking and networking but actually a vapid retread of 80s yuppie self-congratulation strewn with artworld name-dropping by A-list actors.
So dismissals of Banksy as a sellout betraying street art’s gift ethos smell suspiciously of hypocritical bad faith, just as simpering fandom recycles uncritical celebrity-worship – his trademark anonymity facilitating narcissistic transference in positive or negative ego-manic directions while undercutting the protofascistic constellation of a star’s charisma. And, after all, Basquiat and Keith Haring also entered NY galleries, albeit not making obscene bucketloads of dosh – so perhaps, here, mere underdog petit-bourgeois rivalry is at stake, whereupon the exchange-value of commodified creation still rules despite different scales and registers. Specific practical reactions by ‘alternative’ art groups thus restrict their peremptory contempt to partial critique – clearly unequal to the comprehensive demolition of pretension and disarmingly mendacious self-effacement that the film demonstrates. Nevertheless, spoofs of the brand inflation and bogus authenticity often hit home hard on the hater’s funny bone – like ‘the ephemeral one project’ (http://notbanksy.co.uk; aping the ‘genuine’ www.banksy.co.uk) flogging explicit fakes dead cheap on the internet loss-led by freebies scattered on London streets.
But Banksy’s embrace of the yBa commercial bubble can also be read in terms of the cultural-political tactic of ‘overidentification’ – hidden, contradictory undersides of mainstream phenomena being highlighted by faithful simulations exaggerating and attenuating signature characteristics.* This might explain why responses within and to this film run the gamut of elite and popular positions regarding the general role of artists in modern society and its spectacular showbusiness. A measure of success might be the critics’ inability to understand it without undermining their own privileged discourses while exposing sundry regressive prejudices – predictably, ignoring the insistent questioning of graffiti as vandalism, outlaw uses of space, and ‘proper’ processes of art’s provenance, display, dissemination and institutional gatekeeping. That Banksy is immune to none of the criticisms he attracts may therefore be Exit’s most eloquent point – if conveniently and comedically displaced onto his neo-pop French patsy. Yet the escalating ironies in evidence never yield the cynical detachment of either the establishment or its loyal radical opposition – although Banksy wrily admits that he no longer encourages everyone to try doing art, creativity’s potentially subversive power still somehow shines through his deconstruction.
*see, for example, BAVO’s useful discussion in ‘Cultural Activism Today’ (www.bavo.biz), and Stevphen Shukaitis on Slovenian post-punk outfit Laibach in Variant 37 magazine (www.variant.org.uk).
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 9, May 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: