Banksy is in town! Or at least, Banksy’s operatives. Or someone pretending to be Banksy. Or someone imitating Banksy. Or just an ad agency. Or… Whatever. It’s all designed to promote his new film, which is all you need to know. The most honest and direct moment in Exit Through the Gift Shop comes about halfway through, shortly after the narrative takes us through the moment when Banksy went from being an infamous and mysterious street artist to a rich celebrity, selling works for hundred of thousands of dollars to celebrities like Brad Pitt. At this point, Banksy looks at the camera and remarks that it was never about the money, that it was always about the fun of street art.
At least, we are told it is Banksy, except the figure is shrouded in a hoodie, his face darkened and his voice distorted. And yes, assume it is Banksy, isn’t that exactly what we would expect him to say? Don’t they always say that, right after selling out? Sure, except Banksy has also made a film devoted to the proposition that whatever else it may be, street art is ultimately about just playing around with images, ideas, and the urban environment.
Here’s the gist of the movie: A Frenchman named Thierry Guetta who lives in LA became obsessed with filming street artists. He meets Space Invader, Borf, even Shepard Fairey, and becomes their mascot/documentarian. Eventually he meets Banksy himself, insinuated himself into the Banksy collective, and becomes his accomplice, and – Banksy apparently hopes – his Boswell. Except Guetta turns out to be someone with “mental problems and a camera,” and is eventually cast loose. But Guetta turns the tables on his mentors, reinvents himself as a street artist in his own right (named MBW – Mr. Brainwash) and mounts an insane exhibition in LA that sells a million bucks worth of Warhol and Banksy ripoffs in a matter of days.
There’s been a tremendous amount of chatter about the film, mostly focused on whether the story is “true”, whether Guetta really exists, whether Mr. Brainwash is a real artist, whether Banksy is actually behind it, etc. It’s a weird debate, since the answer is both obvious and irrelevant.
First of all, it is clear that Banksy (whoever he may be) is behind the whole thing. Guetta is too much of a fool, his utterances too Bruno-esque, for it to be anything more than a put-on. The first 2/3 of the film are played pretty straight, but by the end of it, Banksy is manifestly taking the piss out of Guetta.
But more to the point, he’s taking the piss out of the whole question of the fake and the authentic with respect to what he does. The whole “is it art?” question, applied to street art, never made any sense at all, and Banksy clearly doesn’t care one way or another how that question gets decided. He’s too busy having fun, creating stencils, creating alter-egos, and making a movie that blows up the whole question of authenticity and art. As Shepard Fairey (who almost certainly was involved in this delightful prank from the start) put it in a profile/promo for Banksy in Time: “It sums up the art world perfectly — the authentic intertwined with the absurd.”