“Breaking the frame” is a social-science term that means changing people’s preconceptions so they see something differently. On the question “What is art?” street artist Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop breaks the frame, then folds, spindles, and mutilates it.
Start with the film’s topic, street art. Banksy and other street artists use public spaces as canvases—spray-painting, stenciling, and postering over walls and billboards. They don’t tend to ask permission. Art or vandalism?
It can be both. Here is a Banksy stencil on Israel’s West Bank barrier:
Or perhaps you’ve seen these around your city?
The guy in the picture is Shepard Fairey, one of the featured artists in the film. He has a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. Here he is in front of another one of his works:
The film shows various street artists in action. By cover of night, they paint and paste like nervy joyriders. Capturing it all is amateur filmmaker Thierry Guetta, whose immersion in the street-art underground eventually leads him to Banksy.
Banksy allies with Guetta to document Banksy’s activities, including the proper art world’s discovery of Banksy. Pieces that previously would have been left in the street until authorities removed them start fetching $25,000 or more at auction.
Noticing this, Guetta seizes on Banksy’s suggestion that Guetta make and exhibit his own art—a suggestion meant to distract Guetta from the film project, which Banksy decides to finish himself after realizing Guetta has no idea what to do with all the footage.
However, instead of finishing the original film, Banksy ends up documenting the meteoric rise of Guetta’s art persona, MBW (Mister Brainwash). MBW hires assistants to quickly render hundreds of works highly derivative of Banksy and other street artists. Riding the media and art-world hype around Banksy, MBW stages a massive exhibition. He sells more than one million dollars worth of art in the first week. MBW’s work later appears in museums and on a Madonna album cover.
Having graduated from maker to subject of Exit Through the Gift Shop, MBW dismisses his critics, saying time will tell if he is a real artist or not. The film ends with Banksy, Fairey, and others expressing confusion about how it all turned out.
Although the film gets more farcical as it goes, the line between fact and fiction is never clear. Post-film Internet searching shows that MBW’s exhibition was real, as was the Madonna album cover. And despite wide suspicion that Guetta/MBW is a fictional character created by Banksy, MBW continues to create and sell art in the real world.
So, to review: The next time you see a defaced wall, it might be art. Whoever made it thought it was art, but that’s just one vandal’s opinion, unless the vandal’s work is deemed important enough to be in galleries and auctions, in which case it is officially art. If it is officially art, instead of being powerwashed into soap scum, it will be auctioned for $42,500. This may be true whether the artist is an actual artist or an actor playing a filmmaker-cum-artist, especially if the latter is part of a hoax perpetrated by the former.
If your head is spinning, Exit Through the Gift Shop—and the larger culture-jamming project it is apparently part of—has done its job.
You can find the film on Netflix and (as of January 2, 2011) Comcast On Demand under “All Movies.”