Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Revolver Entertainment, 2010. Visit here to view a list of screenings in the United States.
I was the first person in the history of my high school to fail the AP Art exam. The class, which at the time was somewhat exclusive, consisted of about six students every year. Each student was charged with the task of developing a portfolio that consisted of about forty artworks, fulfilling a quota for different mediums and displaying a consistent and coherent theme, which was to be verbalized in an artist’s statement.
The theme for my art portfolio was “rhythm,” an excellent theme for a potential art collection had I any perspective for the nuances of how rhythm intersects with the visual arts. But I was not informed by the geometric rhythm of Piet Mondrian’s De Stijl movement, nor was I influenced by the repetitive pop art of Andy Warhol. I was influenced, instead, by music, and in the most contrived way. My portfolio consisted of portraits of drummers and depictions of jazz clubs, and poorly painted ones at that.
I didn’t receive college credit for the course, and it didn’t matter as I went on to major in music. My problem in AP art wasn’t only that I was pretending to be something that I wasn’t, it was that in my hypocrisy, I lacked any perspective of the broader picture of what rhythm was—I refused to place the concept of rhythm in conversation with the visual, and I made bad art that placed my viewers in the position of either buying into the deception or humoring me. Case in point, my mom still has many of these paintings hanging in her house.
Right around the time that I was pretending to be an artist, a Frenchman living in LA named Thierry (pronounced “Terry”) Guetta was beginning to document the rising movement of “street art” with his video camera. The film Exit Through the Gift Shop is the documentation of his story, from becoming a fledgling filmmaker obsessed with street art, to his transformation into a massive financial success through his own contrived, derivative paintings, graffiti, and printwork.
The rumor about this film pre-release was that it was a documentary about Banksy, the anonymous British graffiti artist whose subversive pieces cover structures across the world, including nine pieces on the Israeli West Bank barrier. In the first scene of the film, Banksy, with his voice disguised and a shadow blocking his face, tells the interviewer that he originally agreed to be in a documentary about himself but soon discovered that Guetta, the “director,” was a lot more interesting than he was. The result is a Banksy film about a guy trying to make a film about Banksy.
Guetta’s introduction to street art came in the late ’90s through his cousin, whose pseudonym is Space Invader. Guetta, who began filming his own life incessantly with the birth of his first child, became obsessed with documenting the process of street art, from the planning of the pieces to the running from the police after an “installment.”
After Space Invader came to LA, Guetta was introduced to Shepard Fairey, who at the time was famous in the street art scene. Fairey is now one of the most recognized living artists in the world due to his Barack Obama HOPE icon, the propaganda style portrait in red and blue that became the defining image of politics in 2008. At the time, Fairey was in the midst of a worldwide OBEY campaign in which he covered structures throughout the world with his signature black-and-white symbol of Andre the Giant accompanied by the word OBEY. To Fairey, OBEY was a study in mind control. He was interested in creating a movement of image, a movement that grew as it was questioned and that in turn developed a sort of “perceived power.” He was a pied piper of sorts and OBEY was his flute.
By this point, Guetta had realized some sense of purpose for his life—to make the ultimate street art documentary. A love affair between Guetta and the street art world began. He spent hours, weeks, and months away from home, following the world’s greatest street artists around with a camera. Fairey describes how Guetta became an accomplice to the movement. For the first time, this art, which was sometimes gone by the time the sun came up, had an advocate ready to tell the world about it.
However, Guetta’s appetite for street art would not be satiated until he could interview and film the holy ghost of the movement, Banksy. In 2006, Guetta was introduced to Banksy through Fairey on a trip Banksy made to LA, and here, the most interesting relationship of the film is established. Guetta, whose charisma drives the film, won the trust of Banksy and spent the next two years following him and filming him installing his art. Through his childlike stuttering and stammering English, Guetta describes Banksy as “human,” and even though his face is not visible and his voice sounds robotic, the audience is introduced to an anonym who is funny, charming, and lonely. In a touching moment, Banksy describes how his attachment to Guetta was motivated out of a need to trust someone from outside his world.
And Guetta was equally enamored. Having grown up separated from his large family after the death of his mother, Guetta talks about Banksy like a toddler who misses his father, a father he considers a superhero.
Guetta became Banksy’s accomplice and was let into his world. Banksy brought Guetta with him to film installments. He showed Guetta his secret stash of counterfeit quid with Princess Di in place of the Queen and with “Banksy of England” printed on the bills.
I first became aware of Banksy through his interactions with the music world. He did the cover art for Blur’s 2003 record Think Tank. Most impressively, he teamed up with DJ Dangermouse in 2006 to prank Paris Hilton—they doctored 500 copies of her debut album Paris and swapped them in for the actual versions of the album at record stores throughout Great Britain. The artwork to the doctored albums (which only played remixes by Dangermouse) consisted of airbrushed topless photos of Hilton with a dog’s head and displayed messages such as “Thou shalt not worship false icons” and “90% of success is just showing up.”
The result from Guetta’s years of filming is a documentary titled Life Remote Control, an unintelligible collage of images, some pertinent and some not, with no narrative whatsoever and which in no way displays the brilliance that Guetta was actually present for.
Banksy’s response? A completely befuddled “Uh . . .” and the realization that charm and a camera do not a director make. Everything up until this point in Exit Through the Gift Shop serves as context for the last half hour in which, in a sleight of hand, Banksy commandeers the tapes by distracting Guetta with the honorable charge of going back to LA and creating his own street art for the purpose of a debut gallery show.
Guetta creates a persona, Mr. Brainwash. He sells his business, hires a staff, and begins plotting what might be the biggest debut art show ever. Predictably, chaos ensues.
But if Guetta is, at this point, done being a filmmaker, who is filming him in his art career? How does he afford not to have a day job? You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see Banksy pulling the strings of his French marionette. Even the New York Times is in on the joke, calling Exit Through the Gift Shop a “prankumentary.”
As the tenor of Banksy’s and Fairey’s interviews change to ones of ridicule and mockery, they continue to give press quotes in promotion of Mr. Brainwash’s opening. Mr. Brainwash lands a cover story with LA Weekly. He hires a promotions team. The campaign is massive and so is the success of the opening.
As I watched the footage of Mr. Brainwash’s opening, with testimonials from lemming-like scenesters proclaiming the genius of Mr. Brainwash, I thought about R. Kelley. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a statement by Banksy on the ridiculousness of the art world and a meta-critique on his own rise from punk-with-a-spray-paint-can to auction house celebrity. Much like R. Kelley’s über-ironic R & B opera, Trapped in the Closet, the most entertaining question surrounding Guetta is whether or not this charismatic yet dim-witted protagonist is in on the joke. Guetta spews forth myopic, self-absorbed bullshit, touting his own profundity with the same conviction as the drunken herds attending his opening. It seems like they’ve all been duped.
On the other hand, Guetta, whose thesis to his art opening is “Life is beautiful,” doesn’t seem to care. He playfully glides through the experience with the kind of sincerity that his hipster fans would be embarrassed to display. It’s refreshing to see Guetta, in a sea of numb collectivism, as the one beacon of un-self-loathing. It’s Guetta’s lack of training and abundance of sincerity that places him more in the outsider art category than in the street art camp (although comparing him to artists like Howard Finster and Grandma Moses might be an insult to those artists).
This is what makes Mr. Brainwash a better artist than the high school version of me. I don’t know why I was in AP art class, but it wasn’t because I was having fun. Mr. Brainwash and I both might be frauds, but my cynicism as an artist stopped me from committing at all, and commitment is certainly not a problem for Thierry Guetta.
But even with all of his sincerity, Guetta’s art, like my own, lacks focus. His pieces mostly consist of bland Andy Warhol knockoffs centered around celebrities such as Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. At one point in the film, Banksy, who is apparently not a Warhol fan, claims that whereas Warhol took meaningless pop images and made them more meaningless, Mr. Brainwash has now taken those meaningless Warholian images and made them even more meaningless. That’s thrice the meaninglessness.
Thus, the meaning in this film isn’t in the art of Mr. Brainwash but in the phenomenon of his existence. Banksy is the real artist. At its core, what makes street art different then pop art is its social component: the artworks of Banksy and Fairey consist of subversive yet deceivingly positive messages to society, and whether their art communicates overt messages about hope or subtle mockeries that point out our readiness to obey a crowd, it is apparent that their commitment is to society and that they believe there is some hope for change even in their biting, sometimes disdainful, criticisms.
The criticisms in Exit Through the Gift Shop point toward the art-appreciating world and its collective approach to the idea of celebrity. If there is a villain in Exit Through the Gift Shop, it is the gaudy, elite art collector who brags about buying a Banksy piece in an auction and tells the camera that her first purchase was an Andy Warhol painting that now sits in the closet. But Banksy never sets out to be a celebrity. In fact, he has gone to great lengths to stay anonymous, and while some may consider this as part of an act to gain publicity, he still lives and makes his art in a way that rejects our notion of celebrity, even if it is to the detriment of his own status. This kind of consistency in his art and his persona are what makes Banksy’s life an incarnated extension of one of his many themes, found explicitly in that prank Paris Hilton album: thou shalt not worship false icons—even if the prophet himself is one of them.
Mr. Brainwash is Banksy’s disciple (or pawn, depending on how you see it) who has gone to the corners of the art world to spread this message by holding up a mirror, or by being the mirror himself.
It’s when we reject the cynical collectivist worship of false icons and sincerely embrace our uniqueness that Mr. Brainwash’s credo actually becomes possible. Life becomes beautiful whether or not our lives are imitating art or art is imitating our lives. Whether or not we are in on the joke becomes less important.
Banksy reminisces toward the end of Exit Through the Gift Shop that he used to tell everyone that they should try making art and that after Guetta, he stopped, as if to say that we aren’t all the same and we shouldn’t try to be the same. Guetta is not an artist, even if his fame might say otherwise. His persona, however, speaks volumes more than his canvases, and Banksy has gracefully depicted him as the comedic hero of a brilliant heist. To Banksy, we may not all be artists, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be walking works of art.