Shepard Fairey, a street artist, is having trouble with the mural he just painted on the Bowery in New York City. This time it's not about copyright infringement or a run-in with the law, but with vandalism. Though some say the value of street art is in its transience, Fairey hired guards to protect his work, earning him some critics in the blogosphere ("how can u hire security to watch a wall for you? THAT IS SO NOT ‘STREEET’!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" wrote one angry commenter on the website "ANIMAL New York"). Does Fairey, with his big gallery representation (Deitch Projects), security guards and notoriety, still count as a legitimate street artist? Depending on where you stand, his mural's vandals are either continuing conversation or ruining a masterpiece.
Some of these questions are considered in "Exit Through the Gift Shop", a very good documentary crafted by Banksy, an infamous street artist known for his record-breaking artwork sales and anonymity. The film approaches the world of street art by following a hapless, Los Angeles-based Frenchman named Thierry Guetta (straight from central casting), who spent years obsessively filming these artists at work, purporting to make a documentary. When Banksy discovers that Guetta was more of a thrill-seeker than a filmmaker, he decides to commandeer the footage and make the film himself. The result is a restrained, well-judged look at art-world hype and an illicit, nocturnal group of DIY artists who see the streets as their canvas.
An opening montage of night-time shots is set to the soaring ballad “Tonight the Streets Are Ours”. The footage of these artists at work is pure pleasure, thrilling and seductive. The effect is to reveal the real craft and earnest labour that goes on behind the scenes. What ends up on alleys or billboards is the product of hours of preparation and then hours of sleepless acrobatics, all for the thrill of leaving a mark on the cityscape—even for just a moment.
Street artists who find commercial success, such as Banksy and Fairey, are trapped in an uneasy place between fame and legitimacy. The outsider shtick doesn't square with multi-million dollar sales and industry backing. With this film, Banksy reveals the art world for what it is—a circus full of serendipity, absurdity and fraudulence, which rewards both hard work and hucksterism with sometimes egregious sums.
What is remarkable is that Banksy himself emerges seeming like the real thing: a smart artist (and talented filmmaker) who's been scooped up by—and is reaping the benefits of—the art hype machine.
"Exit Through the Gift Shop" is now playing in select cinemas
Picture Credit: Carl MiKoy (via Flickr)