Banksy: the joke is the message

Nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, Exit Through the Giftshop might just be a big hoax. But does it matter?

Joel Cohen

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The infamously elusive street artist Banksy’s directorial debut, Exit Through the Giftshop, has baffled critics once again after being nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category. Reviewers and moviegoers alike have been unsure about the film’s authenticity; speculation over whether it’s a hoax is rife. So have the Oscar judges been fooled?

Exit Through the Giftshop tells the story of Thierry Guetta, an eccentric French shopkeeper and amateur filmmaker in California who decides to film street artists at work. Some of the world’s most famous street artists agree to participate, including Banksy, who, in the interest of preserving his closely guarded anonymity, demands to be blacked out in the footage.

But in reality, Guetta has no intention of editing his footage together into a documentary. Banksy realises this and halfway through the film he takes over. He decides to make his own movie about Thierry’s project and convinces the Frenchman to become a street artist himself. Banksy teaches him all the tricks of the trade. Thierry ends up adopting the name MBW, an acronym for ‘Mr Brainwash’.

Banksy is widely accepted to be the director of Exit Through the Giftshop, though he is not formally credited as such in the film. His point is to expose how empty and easy commercial street art has apparently become.

The film is effectively a joke on two counts. Firstly, it exposes ‘the joke’ that is contemporary street art, which, Banksy signals, has become so vacuous that anyone could do it. Second, by blurring the lines between fact and fiction and still presenting the whole thing as a documentary, Banksy has delivered a test for the art critics themselves, who have had to decide whether or not to call his bluff.

As they are dared either to love it or hate it, Exit Through the Gift Shop has led to a chronic case of fence-sitting among reputable critics. This is for fear, not only of being exposed as not getting the joke, but also as not getting Banksy himself.

Commentators basically risk slotting themselves into one of two polarised camps. The accepting viewer becomes a clued-up subscriber of Banksy’s trendy, but in my opinion arrogant, worldview. The rejecting viewer, however, is widely deemed to be an ignorant zombie, moving about the world without any care or understanding for the injustices Banksy purports to be exposing.

Whatever you make of Banksy’s Big Messages (I’m not a fan), Exit Through the Gift Shop is indeed a captivating story. Yet it seems the Oscar jury has tried to put itself in the cool, Banksy-fan camp just by nominating the film, which doesn’t strictly qualify as a documentary. Or does it?

Regardless, there is clearly a message here. So let’s go back to the film to see what it’s all about.

The underground world of graffiti artists is opened up to us through Thierry Guetta’s befriending of street artists who accept him into ‘the movement’. One, Shepard Fairey, says of street art that ‘the more important it seems… the more people wanna know what it is…and it gains real power from perceived power’.

So the aim is to get people noticing, wondering about and discussing your graffiti. The more you see an image repeated across a city, the logic goes, the more valid it will seem. Just think of the rats that Banksy has spraypainted around London as a reminder that we’re all apparently slaves to the rat race.

Such repeated ‘tags’ become trademark symbols, serving to legitimise a street artist as a notable presence in a city landscape. But what does it say of the art itself if it needs to be judged simply by how much it is being talked about, and if the way to achieve this is by being repeated ad nauseum? In fact, Banksy’s joke about modern art’s (ir)relevance is answered in the film by proclaiming that it derives its legitimacy from recognition.

Banksy, the most prolific and well-known artist of the movement that Thierry Guetta sets out to document, has built a successful career in providing new icons and narratives for artists to discuss. His graffiti has attempted to rewrite the presumptions of the galleries and dealers who make up the art establishment. And as a social commentator, Banksy has sought to rewrite the story of how we view everything from the surveillance society and consumerism to the Israel-Palestine conflict. His insistence on anonymity is meant to help signal that this alternative narrative that he tries to promote is all around us if you just look hard enough because he supposedly exposes a deeper truth.

When put into the context of Banksy’s wider work and graffiti activism, it becomes clear that Exit Through The Gift Shop is also an attempt to rewrite the story of ‘the movement’. If he who makes the recognisable icons also truly has the power to set the agenda, then the temptation to play a trick on the cultural establishment – and maybe embarrass his critics in the process – was too strong for Banksy to resist.

As for whether or not the film is a good documentary, the pedants who want to disqualify it from the Oscar race miss the point. All documentaries are scripted movies and playing with the truth has more and more become part of the documentary filmmaker’s remit, as, for instance, Catfish has shown.

When The Cove won the Oscar for Best Documentary last year, it was not due to being a high-quality film. Instead it was The Message wot won it. Likewise, if Exit Through The Gift Shop wins this year, it will say more about the jury’s social leanings than about the film’s cinematic worth.

Joel Cohen is an undergraduate student of politics at SOAS and a former spiked intern. He produced the session, ‘Political graffiti or self-important art?’ at last year’s Battle of Ideas Festival.

Watch the trailer for Exit Through the Gift Shop

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