John Lanchester’s recent novel, “Capital,” includes a street artist and provocateur who seems to be based on the artist known as Banksy. “Smitty,” as he is called in the novel, knows the value of everything, and, like Banksy, he’s smart enough to know that his most valuable commodity is his anonymity.
The new HBO documentary “Inside Out: The People’s Art Project” is about a French street artist who similarly guards his anonymity. He is known as “JR” (it sounds slightly cooler in French) and he is only ever seen in dark glasses and a fedora.
Perhaps the cloak-and-dagger routine is a hangover from his days as a street artist. It might even serve a useful purpose today. But what makes JR’s charade seem more than a little ludicrous is that the whole premise of his “Inside Out Project” — the subject of this intermittently interesting documentary — is that showing people’s faces matters.
JR and his team of helpers go around the world finding oppressed populations, printing huge black and white photographs of individuals within those populations (usually against a polka dot background), and pasting them in conspicuous public places.
The idea is strikingly old-fashioned. By and large, modern artists either abandoned the genre of portraiture or radically transformed it, and they did so for a reason: By itself, a face can say only so much.
But in JR’s hands, so much counts for a lot. The film is filled with people who respond ecstatically to the sight of their own faces blown up huge and plastered all over their troubled neighborhoods in Haiti, the West Bank, Brazil, Tunisia, Mexico, France, and the United States.
Empowering, provocative, democratic, accusatory: an individual portrait, we’re reminded, can be all these things.
JR’s call to action — “Tell me what you stand for, and together we’ll turn the world inside out” — was delivered at a TED talk, after he won the 2011 TED Prize. That honor brought with it some funding to act on “a wish to change the world.”
The “People’s Art Project,” described as the world’s largest participatory art project,” was the result.
The project seems remarkable in many ways, and you would have to be cynical not to be moved and amazed by some of the scenes in this film. But the telling of the story of JR and his devoted, globe-trotting team is so flippant and so shallow that you can’t help but be overwhelmed by skeptical questions: Is JR more than a poseur? Is he actually solving anyone’s problems? Does art, ever?
I think of a grieving couple who have had the beautiful eyes of their dead boy — a victim of suicide at Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota — enlarged and plastered on the side of a trailer. The father says seeing them was like “walking into heaven,” and of course, you feel with him.
But the camera pans way back — it’s the only distance from which the massive, cropped image congeals into something legible — and you wonder: Do these huge, lifeless eyes in black and white bring back the feel of the boy’s skin, or his troubled body tossing at night? Do they in any way help to make up the difference?
How does it all feel, in other words, when the film cameras go away, when the paper begins to peel, when the next rains come and wash it all away?
In JR’s worldview — in the worldview of too many street artists, perhaps — an image is empowering only to the extent that it is enlarged and on public view. There is some truth to the idea, no doubt. But in the end, it is an adman’s, a dictator’s reasoning. There must be other, more modest uses for images.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.