What is good art? What’s the line between being a fan of art and being an artist, and when should one not cross that line? Is art that’s created to be commercial inherently worse than art that happens to become commercial? And is Banksy actually as funny as he appears to be in this movie?

These are some of the questions explored in Exit Through the Gift Shop, the ‘secret’ movie at Sundance this year. Billed as the film by Banksy (IMDB doesn’t list any director on the film), the mysterious English street artist who exploded into the popular consciousness with politically-minded graffiti, Exit Through the Gift Shop turns the tables on Thierry Guetta, who tried to make a documentary that featured Banksy. Guetta’s story is a weird one – a guy who just happened to compulsively video everything in his life, he discovered that his cousin was the French street artist known as Space Invader, and Guetta began filming Invader as he glued up tile versions of video game aliens all over Paris. Through Invader Guetta got to know other members of the nascent street art scene, folks like Shepard Fairey and Neckface, and he became obsessed. Guetta was always filming, and after a while these folks began to want to know why he was shooting so much video; the truth was that the tapes just sat in his shed, but he told them that he was making a documentary about street art.

Eventually Guetta got introduced to Banksy, and the reclusive artist allowed the hyperactive Frenchman to do what no one had ever before done: shoot him at work. After getting to know Bansky and being inspired, Guetta returned home to Los Angeles and became a manufactured street art superstar, plastering his derivative works all over LA and selling millions in art at a poorly-planned massive gallery opening. 

In a lot of ways Exit Through the Gift Shop plays like a satire of the art world, and watching the film I began to wonder how much of it was a put on. When Guetta became a street artist – renaming himself Mr. Brainwash – his work looked more than a little like that of Banksy and Fairey and others. Could Mr. Brainwash be only the vessel for a major prank by these guys? It’s interesting that when Guetta puts down his camera to make art someone else picks up their camera and starts documenting him. If the Mr. Brainwash stuff is fake, it reduces the sense of sour grapes that comes from the film’s final reels. I suspect that the full truth behind Exit Through the Gift Shop won’t be known for some time (there are folks here in Park City whispering that Spike Jonze actually directed the movie), so instead of spending this review hashing out the reality of the film, I’ll just talk about watching it.

Watching it is great. Exit Through the Gift Shop works on a lot of levels – as a history of the street art scene, as a look at a very strange Frenchman and his weird life, and as a conversation starter on what is good art and what is bad art. It seems to be a conversation that’s especially relevant to the street artists, as they’re working in a medium that’s illegal, looked down upon and usually the province of disaffected 14 year olds. They’re obviously doing something bigger than simple graffiti – one look at Banksy’s astonishing and moving work on the West Bank Barrier proves that – but they can be lumped in with plain old vandalism. Having lived in cities that are centers for street art I can say that these pieces truly beautify and energize neighborhoods, completely the opposite of what boring tagging does. But there are many who, until Banksy exploded, didn’t see the difference. And now they maybe can’t see the difference between the true artists and the hacks and knock offs and wannabes – which is what happens to every underground artistic movement, whether it be fine arts or music or movies. 

Of course there’s the flip side of that for the street artists; what they did was seen as a democratic movement , something that anyone could be involved with. You didn’t have to get your paintings into a gallery to be seen, and that was the whole point. But now these guys find themselves wondering if the gatekeepers they looked to overthrow years ago aren’t really needed after all. In a lot of ways it reminded me of the situation with movie blogs today, with substandard and poor writing and analysis getting all of the attention. Many of the movie web’s Mr. Brainwashes seemed to like Exit Through the Gift Shop, interestingly.

The film is very funny, edited with verve and a smirk. Banksy himself appears – both having his work documented, which is fascinating in and of itself – as well as being interviewed, his face hidden and his voice changed. Banksy’s sharp and witty, so much so that I wondered if he wasn’t scripted (or for that matter portrayed by an actor. If this film is as fake as it kind of appears to be, that’s a huge possibility). Guetta is an incredible character (whether or not he’s real, or whether or not he’s real with a second half bit of phoniness), hilarious in that blissfully un-self aware way. And watching Guetta’s transformation into Mr. Brainwash is darkly comic; an art-world version of Network

There is one other level to this film: massive self-mythologizing by Banksy. Whether or not Banksy is a person or a collective, this film is almost surely calculated to entrench him in the popular culture. It worked: the news that the film was playing Sundance hit the front pages of most of the biggest web news aggregators, like Yahoo! and Google News. Often this kind of calculation would put me off, but it feels somehow right here – this is a movie about guys whose art can be boiled down to writing their names as large as they can on public spaces. Self-mythologizing is in the job description. And when it’s done this well, who can complain?

I look forward to the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop because I’m hoping it sparks a major good vs bad art debate; we live in an era when all art is equal, as are all opinions, something that strikes me as simply horrible. There is bad art, and there are bad opinions. Luckily, Exit Through the Gift Shop is certainly not bad art.

9 out of 10