Yes, Darling, But Is It Art?: Exit Through the Gift Shop

April 23, 2010

I’ve never really liked Banksy. I should add that I have no real eye or understanding of art, so I can’t say much more than ‘while aesthetically pleasing, a majority of his work suffers from insipid political statements about consumerism and war and whatever else.’ The protester is about to launch a molotov cocktail…oh wait a minute, that’s a bouquet of flowers. It’s the kind of half-assed ‘sticking it to The Man’ nonsense that bothers me, so even if the sentiments are generally in the right direction, I snobbishly snub my nose at the kids buying his coffee table book. So with that out of the way, we can press on with Banksy’s first film, Exit Through the Gift Shop.

A documentary of sorts, Exit deals not so much with Banksy but rather the rise of the recent Street Art movement, specifically through the footage of its biggest groupie, a peculiar Frenchman named Thierry Guetta. Originally making his money from running a trendy vintage close shop in LA, he is the cousin of a French artist named Invader, who recreates the ships from Space Invaders in tile and places them around the city. He films everything in his life incessantly, but when he starts hanging out with his cousin, he finds his focus. From there he meets and films other street artists, including Shepard Fairey, famous for his Andre the Giant faces with the word ‘Obey’ printed beneath. Soon enough, Bansky’s star is in the ascendent. After tagging the West Bank wall, his notoriety cemented itself in the mainstream consciousness, and before long he went to LA. Guetta connects with him and they soon become friends, or at the very least Banksy allows Guetta to follow him around. Eventually Banksy convinces Guetta to get into street art on his own, an idea taken to an extreme that results in a hugely hyped and apparently very successful solo show featuring some of the worst Warhol ripoffs you’re ever likely to see.

That’s the summation, but there’s a lot to pick apart here. The question of authenticity is a difficult one, as it’s either one of the best constructed mockumentaries I’ve seen or everything that was filmed is the biggest stroke of luck a documentarian could hope for. Whatever the facts may or may not be, it really isn’t the core of what makes Exit such an interesting work. First of all, there’s the man himself. Banksy is an immensely popular figure, and even if I don’t particularly care of his work (save the dying phone box and the West Bank wall stunt, though that is more about the act than the art), I do have a warm spot for him in the way he has become a British national treasure, with locals fighting to preserve his graffiti from councils. Still, he’s an elusive figure who owes no small amount of his success to his carefully constructed image. He prefers anonymity, less so for legal reasons than for the air of mystique it provides. When you’re selling artwork at Sotheby’s for around a million pounds, you can hardly claim to be an underground street artist in the truest sense, no matter how many mocking statements you might release about the people who buy your work. The film does absolutely nothing to detract from the persona he’s created. In fact, Exit seems designed to ensure that Banksy comes off exactly how he’s always wanted to: the snarky, clever, funny art-terrorist who is above it all. He doesn’t come off smug or condescending about Guetta, because he’s too cool to care in the first place. He takes everything with a shrug of indifference or, at most, mild bemusement. Never be in doubt, this is propaganda for Banksy.

The thematic crux of the film is the commodification of art. Guetta’s shop in Los Angeles becomes successful when he buys cheap, kitschy t-shirts and resells them at inflated prices and markets them as trendy originals. Banksy himself is not above cashing in, as the true turning point of the movement is his now-famous, star-studded installation in LA, complete with a painted live elephant. It doesn’t depict the buyers with disdain so much as it gently mocks the way in which hipster fashionability can elevate anything into expensive art. Guetta, under the name of Mr. Brainwash, creates the kind of awful artwork that you’d expect in a really broad satire. Classic images of Elvis with his guitar replaced by an AK-47 with ‘Fisher Price’ emblazoned on the side are exhibited and lapped up by buyers. Hype, trends, and circumstance are more important than quality, and the way in which the installation attendees have convinced themselves of their greatness before they’ve seen them is telling of how little understanding the casual buyer has. This is all very amusing and, for anyone who follows alt-hipster fashion, style, and music, very familiar. Of course, Guetta has been presented as such a well-meaning poser buffoon that again, Banksy comes out as the Original, Authentic Real Deal. Guetta’s attempt to make a documentary out of the footage he has shot, which is the moment he moves from observer to creator, is hilariously awful. When he attempts to create his show, his ego threatens to derail the whole thing, and you’d expect for him to be heading for a fall, but Banksy and co have paved the way for this kind of thing to be de rigeur, and now any old fool can be an artist. Even while fashioning an argument that this kind of art isn’t art at all, Banksy manages to come out on top.

Still, now matter how subtly self-congratulatory it all is for Banksy, the film is entertaining. It also functions really well on its most important level: that of the definitive document of the street-art movement. The film shows us the artists and their work, sure, but it also captures the thrill of prowling the streets at night and scuffling with cops and getting your work out there.  The act is as significant as the art.It also notes the temporal aspect of the movement’s work, which might be it’s most important characteristic. Before it was sold at auction houses or put into galleries, it was on the walls of a building or the side of an underpass, always threatening to disappear when it was painted over. Indeed, by giving so much of it a permanent display in this film, it detracts from its power and appeal. I was reminded of Derek Jarman’s 1977 film Jubilee, in which Queen Elizabeth I travels forward in time to an anarchic Britain where punk really did win the day. Released at arguably the height (at least, as far as mainstream Britain was concerned) of the punk movement, it satirized the ridiculous nature of the message while the music and the spirit were still in full force on the national consciousness (hence so many bigger punk stars pulling out the project). All that free spirited anarchic quality was pretty stupid once it was thought through, because ‘thinking through’ was anathema to the philosophy. Likewise, Exit Through the Gift Shop captures the daft absurdity of the street-art movement and its central paradox: once you’ve become popular and accepted by the mainstream, your work ceases to have relevance. The film, in some ways just by existing, already relegates itself to an anachronism; a time capsule of a silly but interesting blip in the cultural landscape.


2 Responses to “Yes, Darling, But Is It Art?: Exit Through the Gift Shop”

  1. John Says:

    Nice write up.

  2. Tony Says:

    I bought his coffee table book. Small coffee table though.

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