For much of the 20th century, many accounts would have us believe, artists and their critics were scrambling around trying to define what constitutes art. At the turn of the century, rapidly emerging technology and whiplash-inducing modernization had stretched the narrow parameters of “fine art” past its limits and provided enterprising artists a stunning, possibly boundless, new frontier. This outpour of innovation and boundary pushing led to an increased awareness of the individuals behind the work, as the public sought to put a face to every new movement and vanguard. Thus, the role of the auteur, the all-encompassing artist in full control of their vision, as well as the act of individual creation, were exalted to the point of celebrity.
Enter Picasso, who became a living brand and inspired the kind of mainstream fervor ripe for closer inspection. In 1956, Henri-Georges Clouzot turned his camera on the artist, whom he’d known from a young age, and attempted to capture The Mystery of Picasso through the uninhibited documentary format. The film, a pseudo-metaphysical challenge to the notion of art, performance and film, depicts Picasso in his element, shirtless and in front of a canvas. Clouzot’s genius conceit has the artist painting directly onto a canvas captured by the camera from the opposite side, with brushstrokes materializing and gradually creating a new work.
A neat gimmick, certainly, but what’s most fascinating about this exercise in ego and creation is that the paintings were destroyed immediately following the shoot, rendering them only existent on film. At the very end of the documentary, Picasso approaches a blank canvas and signs his name, signaling his intent to make the entire project one cohesive work rather than each an individual canvas. Though the main artist here is ostensibly Picasso, this act taking place at the end of Clouzot’s film raises the question of whether the work is a total collaboration. An earlier scene cuts away from the canvases to show Clouzot, stopwatch in hand, keeping time on the painter – a reminder that, in addition to being a document of a painting in real time, the film is also an experiment for the director, who still holds the reins to his production.
What winds up on screen ultimately runs long enough to decay into overindulgence, but what linger afterwards are the questions posed about the role of film as both an artform and an instrument with the agency to create an autonomous time-sensitive space. Are the paintings to be considered part of the film, or destroyed canvases? One seldom considers, say, a prop notebook in a narrative film as its own entity, but rather process it as part of the greater work. How closely can two forms of creation exist before they are considered the same?
Nearly 40 years later, Terry Zwigoff, famed member of the island of misfit artists, approached longtime friend and fellow eccentric Robert Crumb for another cinematic look into creation’s abyss. Though a much more straightforward documentary, Crumb (1994), the filmic portrait of the underground cartoonist is a direct descent into the ugly underbelly of 20th century America. Once the doors to his childhood are opened, any secrecy that might’ve shrouded the illustrator behind “Keep on Truckin’” and Fritz the Cat is eliminated. There’s simply no turning back from the coarse world of perversion, abuse, rivalry and profane familiarity that shaped the man who would, almost by accident, define a generation of American underground art.
Due to the men’s personal relationship and their shared, twisted sensibilities, Crumb manages to make sense of the cartoonist’s oeuvre while fitting in perfectly with the filmmaker’s own. The themes explored in both men’s works are objectively repulsive and make no attempt at hiding the seedy sensationalism that drives them, which is precisely what gives the documentary such a thorough, almost intrusive, feel – we wind up, for better or worse, knowing exactly the kind of lives these men lead. For all it’s exhibitionism, however, the film stops short of any attempt at defining Crumb’s artistry; the circumstances around the act of creation might be examined, but the process is left undisturbed, for us to ponder the mysterious force that propels someone out of their surroundings and into art.
That final leap into creation which eluded the other directors is exploited and flipped on its head in Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), Banksy’s possibly fictional documentary about the surreal world of street art. Just as Picasso and Clouzot merged their visions for a cohesive whole and Zwigoff and Crumb’s aligning interests made for an atmospherically sound work, Gift Shop would be nothing without its overarching ethos. The secrecy surrounding Banksy’s identity, artistry and – for those who challenge the idea that his work is done by a sole creator – existence inform every aspect of the film, which may or may not document the rise of another street artist, Mr. Brainwash.
To call Banksy the film’s director, or to say any of the events captured are true, are all up for interpretation, given that the popular belief that the work is an elaborate hoax has gone unchallenged by its creator. Then again, hoax seems the right word to describe the work of Banksy, who has long been associated with pseudo-vandalistic, commercially available anti-capitalist graffiti and not so much with taking anything seriously. Far from being a simple mockumentary, though, this bizarre exercise in visibility begs a much more interesting question: can one faux-document something into reality? Though Mr. Brainwash was virtually nonexistent before the film’s release – making the film’s portrayal of his explosive ascent into the art world debatable, at best – his pieces sold for hundreds of thousands afterwards.
Though the sincerity of the material is dubious, people still would have had to attend gallery exhibits and create actual graffiti on actual streets, regardless of veracity. Banksy and company might have set out to fool everyone, but wound up going through the same exhausting process someone looking to make it big would endure. The works are real, the actions are real – the only debate surrounds categorization, which is something to which art might be inherently parallel. This ultimately plants the film in the same realm as Clouzot’s and Zwigoff – one at the indefinable intersection of art, truth and history that both encapsulates and blurs their boundaries.