Walking around your town, prison yard or agricultural commune, you may have noticed strange stickers clinging to lampposts or the sides of buildings. You may have noticed them in several places and then been surprised when you kept seeing them again. These strange images – like Shepard Fairey’s “Andre The Giant Has A Posse” sticker campaign and Invader’s Space Invader-inspired “Invader” mosaics – are examples of Street Art. An underground art movement whose chief accomplishment seems to have been to prompt millions of bemused passers by to snort dismissively and ask ‘what’s the point of that then?’ But of course, this is an entirely legitimate question.
At a time when artists garner more critical attention by cutting up dead animals and sticking elephant dung to canvases, questions surrounding the purpose of art and the dividing line between the artistic and the non-artistic have never been more pressing : Is it supposed to be decorative? Is it supposed to make us think? Is it supposed to shock us? Are traditional art forms more useful than these modern forms? Is it supposed to make us ask questions like these?
The problem in part is that there is no clear frame of reference that allows us to begin answering these questions and even if there were, artists would go out of their way to deconstruct it : Art is decorative. Art is inspiring. Art is beautiful. Art is meaningful : Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail.
Street Art’s reliance upon mass production and recycled imagery makes it particularly prone to these kinds of questions. In fact, these kinds of questions seem to be the motivating force behind Banksy’s documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop (2009), but as we shall see it is not only stickers on walls that invite these kinds of questions as once you start asking them, it is difficult to stop.
Before the film even starts, it is playing tricks with us. Exit Through The Gift Shop is ‘a Banksy film’, but this is not to say that it was directed by Banksy. Indeed, this documentary about the Street Art scene is conspicuously lacking a directorial credit. It is Banksy’s but he is not the author. He did not make it. In fact, it is not even about him. It is about Thierry.
Thierry Guetta a Frenchman living in Los Angeles. Guetta is also the cousin of the noted Street Artist Invader. Taking an understandable interest in his cousin’s activities, Guetta starts filming him as he works. He films him making the mosaics. He even films him putting the mosaics in place in different places around the world. Guetta then jumps ship to Shepard Fairey and does the same to him. From Fairey, Guetta moves to another Street Artist. And then another. And then another. Guetta films and films and films, collecting hundreds of hours of footage of the Street Art scene. On the grounds that he seems to be making a film about them, the Street Artists give Guetta access. After all, their art is stuck up illegally all over the place and so it has a tendency to be whitewashed over or torn down. It is all very well being wedded to transitory artistic expression, but it is nice to think that someone out there is keeping track of your output. Hence Thierry.
Guetta’s enthusiasm for the Street Art scene wins him many friends and contacts. So many in fact that when the elusive Banksy decides to produce some art in Los Angeles, he winds up asking Thierry to help. From suggesting good walls to helping move stuff, Guetta eventually winds up helping Banksy to smuggle an inflatable Guantanamo Bay detainee into Disneyland. A stunt that results in his being questioned by Disney’s in-house security for hours. But Thierry does not crack. And because he does not crack, Banksy comes to trust him.
One of Exit Through The Gift Shop’s more fascinating themes is the extent to which the process of producing art has becomes partially detached from the job of being an artist : Shepard Fairey designs his stickers but it is a high street print shop that actually produces them. Similarly, Banksy has an army of helpers who not only facilitate the construction of his frequently illegally dumped art installations but who also have a hand in actually making what we would think of as the works of art themselves. This is not a phenomenon exclusive to Street Art either as Damien Hirst did not personally attach the 8,601 diamonds that make-up his sculpture ‘For The Love Of God’ (2007) and it, it seems to me, it would be unconscionably cruel to suggest that the various Tate Modern turbine hall installations were not the work of their respective artists simply because they were assembled by workmen. As the documentary progresses, it effectively tries to find the point at which ‘doing art’ becomes completely separate from ‘making art’ and at which a helper becomes an artist in his own right. This crash testing of what we think of as the job of being an artist is mirrored in the personal journey of Guetta.
You see… Thierry was never a film maker. If anything he was mentally ill. The footage he took of the Street Artists constitutes only a fraction of the hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage Guetta collected as a part of his day-to-day existence. His filming was not the basis for a work of art, it was the product of a mental compulsion. An obsession with capturing every moment of his life on film in case some of it managed to escape him. This poses an interesting question : Had Guetta been filming the Street Artists as part of a genuine desire to make a film about them, then the raw footage he produced would undeniably have been art. Art in the sense that early drafts of poems and figure studies for larger paintings are also art. They are part of the process of artistic production. But Thierry’s footage was a result of his emotional insecurities and psychological frailties. Thierry’s footage was not willed into existence, it was created because Thierry could not put down the camera. Does this change the artistic value of the footage itself? Banksy’s voice-over suggests that it does. Guetta did, at Banksy’s suggestion, produce a film out of his original footage but it turned out to be ninety minutes of unwatchable, over-edited, stream-of-consciousness garbage. That film may well have been art, but it was not particularly good art. Banksy suggests that it was only when he took over the footage and decided to whip it into a watchable shape that it became art. This would suggest that the dividing line between the artistic and the non-artistic is a question of skill. But then how do we explain Banksy’s helpers and the Tate Modern’s work crews? You can see the problem.
However, Guetta was about to make the problem even worse.
At Banksy’s suggestion, Thierry went off and became a Street Artist. His first project was to get someone to produce a cartoon of him. A cartoon that he would then reproduce in sticker-form and stick all over the city. If this sounds a lot like Shepard Fairey’s Andre the Giant project then you would be right. Before long, Thierry had hired a huge staff of ‘helpers’ and bought printing presses capable of churning out Street Art on an almost industrial scale. From there, Thierry went on to rent an abandoned TV studio and set about filling it with art.
What was so surprising about the art produced by Thierry was that it picked up on all of the ontologically destabilising and aesthetically deconstructive aspects of contemporary art and magnified them ten fold. Thierry did not produce art that was inspired by other artists, he used their methods and their ideas and produced similar stuff himself. Consider, for example, the pride of Thierry’s exhibition : A Campbell’s Soup tin with a spray can nozzle on the top. Thierry produced none of his own art, he merely gave instructions to underlings who then went off and made the pieces. Thierry accompanied the mass production of art by drawing on all of his old Street Art contacts in order to help him hype his Mister Brainwash event entitled Life Is Beautiful. Before long, Guetta’s derivative and mass produced art works were selling for tens of thousands of dollars. People were queueing round the block to see his exhibition. Art collectors were calling in a desperate attempt to snap up his pieces.
So here was a man who had set himself up as an artist but who not only did not produce his own work or oversee its production, he did not have any original ideas at all. Not only was this man calling himself an artist, he was recognised as such by the wider cultural community. He was an artist but he lacked skill, ideas, insights or originality. In fact, he lacked pretty much all of the qualities you would traditionally think of as being necessary for becoming an artist. At a stroke, Thierry had rendered the distinction between the artistic and the non-artistic entirely meaningless.
Exit Through The Gift Shop ends with some subdued anger from the Street Art community as both Banksy and Fairey attempt to paint Thierry as some kind of horrific parvenu who traded upon his connections in order to make a lot of money. But while there is an element of truth to this, it is genuinely difficult to see what Thierry has done wrong. All he did was take the deconstructive tendencies of contemporary art and take them to their logical conclusion. Indeed, Shepard Fairey has been sued for copyright infringement because of his use of images taken from the Weekly World News and if this is a legitimate artistic tactic then surely Guetta’s endless recycling of other artists’ ideas is just as legitimate. Guetta’s work provides a clear and coherent answer to the question ‘What is Art?‘ : Something is artistic if people recognise it as artistic. It does not need to be the product of skill, nor does it need to be an original idea or particularly insightful. Art is what people point at when they say ‘That is Art’.
Exit Through The Gift Shop is not an entirely serious film. While it engages with big ideas, it does so in quite a self-deprecating manner suggesting that the Street Artists are a bunch of cartoonish characters who puff up like turkeys when they have their own tricks turned against them. The fact that the skewerers of artistic pretention have been so beautifully skewered in turn begs the question as to whether or not Thierry Guetta is a real person as opposed to some huge hoax played on the art establishment. But of course, if it is impossible to tell the difference between a work of art and derivative mass-produced junk then it follows that it must also be impossible to tell the difference between a genuine artist, a prank and a weird french bloke with mental problems. Such is art.