I couldn't wait to see Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary on the unlikely rise to fame of Mr. Brainwash, so I didn't. It opened in New York today and I spent yet another $12 on the guy to have a look-see. (And people, it is a "look-see," not a "looksie," as so many tend to write it these days who "should of" known better.)
The film is, to me, very much like Mr. Brainwash's work—we've seen street art before, albeit in slightly altered form (graffiti, the punk movement), and yet there is an undeniable appeal. It's like potato chips for your brain, this movie, this art, this artist. And it's so not deep that it's deeply satisfying nonetheless, filling your mind up with iconic echoes instead of with complicated emotions.
It's like Andy Warhol. Kinda...great.
Banksy appears as a hooded or otherwise obscured figure, wryly narrating how the film was supposed to be a documentary on his life and work and on the history of street art, all shot by a worshipful, daredevil, cameraman/fan named Thierry Guetta. Guetta shot hundreds (thousands?) of hours of footage showing Banksy and every other street-art luminary working their magic, only to fashion it into a bizarre, ADD-inspired montage many years after the fact. Banksy took over, turning the film into a brief but illuminating peek at himself, at Shepard Fairey, at the movement, and also into a mildly poisonous chocolate kiss about the silliness of an art world that falls in love with Guetta's eventual brand: Mr. Brainwash.
My brush with Mr. Brainwash (anti-pun intended)
I went in expecting to feel idiotic for liking any of Mr. Brainwash's stuff, but I was pleasantly surprised. Guetta comes off as charming through most of the film. Toward the end, as we're exposed to his Napoleonic delusions, he still seems utterly sincere even if he also seems quite empty compared to the street artists he admires and emulates. Still, it's wickedly funny that subversive types like Banksy and Fairey don't see the irony (or perhaps they do) of their elitist refusal to accept Mr. Brainwash as being real or good just because they don't respect his process. I mean, what would even a rebel like Picasso think of their work? What would Rembrandt make of Picasso?
He could be devoid of artistry—and considering scenes documenting the fact that everyone but Guetta seems to actually make his art, that would be one argument!—but if he was able to stage a massive show and sell a million dollars worth of art and, most importantly, attract so many average joes to his work, he has succeeded, he has been accepted and he is legit. (The film notes Madonna's use of Mr. Brainwash for her Celebration cover, clearly paralleling the two as self-created borderline con artists.)
The best line is when Banksy, who's quite hysterically funny and as dry as the Sahara, notes something like, "There's absolutely nobody like Mr. Brainwash, even if his stuff resembles everyone else's stuff."
If it's ridiculous that people have cottoned to Mr. Brainwash, is it any less ridiculous that they cottoned on to Fairey or Banksy or their spiritual muse Warhol before them?
In the end, it's tough to decide which of these artists, if any, is the real deal and which is just having a laugh. Or if it matters, as long as the art inspires.
I don't know much about fraud, but I know what I like.