Rise of a Supervillain, or Clown Prince of Street Art Strikes Again?

So I finally got around to watching the heavily talked-about, Oscar-nominated street art doc Exit Through the Gift Shop this weekend. The film is directed by the anonymous street artist and culture critic Banksy, constructed primarily of footage shot by the film's presumably unwitting star, the would-be filmmaker-turned street art sensation Thierry Guetta (above), aka Mr. Brainwash.

As someone coming very late to the film (which has since been accused of being at least partially fabricated), I chose to try and accept it on face value- to watch it as another in a long line of slanted documentaries with an agenda beyond documentation of reality- and to deal with the question of it's veracity separately. There are tons of details about the movie that are very easily confirmed as true, while others will always be open for speculation and alternating theories.
Even with all I had heard about the film prior to watching it, I found myself drawn into the weird life of Thierry Guetta, which reads like the origin story of a super-villain. If the documentary's account of Guetta's life can be believed, sad and fairly tragic events in his childhood (including the death of his mother) saddled him with a compulsion to take pictures and video of everything and everyone in his life, to the point that his friends and family just got used to the constant filming. When a cousin (himself a prolific street artist) allows Thierry to film his art-making, he unwittingly provides Thierry with an entry point into filming more and more prominent street artists, culminating with the golden goose of street artists, the elusive and anonymous Banksy.
He mostly made these inroads because he convinced the artists that he too was an artist: They believed he intended to eventually combine all that footage to create a documentary about street artists exploits, adventures and culture. Instead, when Banksy decides that Guetta is incapable of creating a documentary of any merit, he prods him down the road of becoming a street artist himself, while secretly using Guetta's footage to create his own film about Guetta's transformation into the street art franchise called Mr. Brainwash, who hires a squad of artists and takes the Los Angeles art scene by storm.
Whether Banksy's account of all this is sincere, it brings to mind many of the usual notions about where the boundaries  are (or should be) around art. What can fairly be called art, who can fairly be called an artist, and what the real value of art is, if there is any. Guetta is subtly painted as a shifty and unbalanced con man, who had already made a good living exploiting the mildly stupid (buying discarded clothes and reselling them as "vintage" to well-heeled hipsters) who then brought the same mindset to the art world. He contracted a gang of artists to take him from art zero to art hero in short order, selling almost a million bucks worth of his cheesy art to the gullible Tinseltown art dorks.
Of course, it's not surprising that people might call Banksy's sincerity into question. His art is at its core social satire. He frequently thumbs his nose at the art community and he is to date completely anonymous. Since so much of his art is done using stencils and reproductions, there's no way to confirm his own identity, and some suspect he may actually be franchising his name (or "brand" if you prefer) out to other artists. Obviously, someone is out there cashing the checks, but the art world at large (including art nerds like me, and probably you too) has no real way to know if the hooded figure in the film is the "real" Banksy or a spokesman. And while we can't be sure what percentage of his origin story for Mr. Brainwash is accurate, he's at least real enough to be the latest street artist to lose a high-profile copyright case that may wreck the Fair Use defense for pop artists... but I digress...
I said all that to say: this movie is dope either way. After years of reading comics, I would love to think this is a straight-up documentary chronicling the rise of an unintentional art villain who exploits the cracks in the framework of the so-called "fine art" world for financial gain and ego inflation. But I can just as easily enjoy it as a likely inside joke from one of the most well-known (yet anonymous) court jesters in the global village.
If you haven't seen this movie, you probably should if you are an art nerd. It's available for Instant Viewing on Amazon (FREE for Amazon Prime members). The questions it raises about art are not new ones, but it will give you a chance to talk about them from another angle (and what art nerd doesn't want THAT?). If you have seen it, I'd LOVE to hear your thoughts!

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