Art (“Art”) is a the centre of “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the film by street artist(s) Banksy, a screen version of his famed art installations that works on multiple levels, working mystery and comedy together, without ever really committing to one big singular idea.
The film’s conceit is that it tells the story of camera-man Thierry Guetta, who thanks to his cousin “Space Invader,” falls totally in love with the street art scene, and along the way documents and befriends Shepard Fairey (“Obey” and “Hope” signs guy) and Banksy, before turning into a street artist himself, “Mr. Brainwash.”
At the end of the film “Mr. Brainwash,” despite creating totally shallow and vapid “art” (Spraypaint Campell’s Soup can), becomes “more popular” than Banksy and Fairey after mounting a truly massive art show on a vacant CBS lot six months into his art career.
By the film’s last quarter, Fairey and Bansky’s admiration of Guetta as a cameraman (or “documentarian” as he bills himself — despite never making a documentary ever), turns into tragic disdain as he mounts a show with no meaning whatsoever, with art mainly created by a crew of talented, uncredited artists. Banksy quips that he used to encourage everyone to make art, but since suggesting that to Guetta, he doesn’t do that anymore.
Ultimately, if you couldn’t tell by the title of the film, this movie is essentially about “selling out,” “cashing in,” and the upside down world of the modern art industry. Guetta, who duped Los Angelinos (like Beck!) into buying designer/vintage clothes by turning a $50 bulk pile of duds into $5000 worth of hipster wear, unwittingly becomes the same sort of art savant shyster by the film’s end, bilking “art fanatics” into buying over a million dollars of impossibly derivative art at his first show (to be fair, the fans were attracted by promotional quotes from Banksy and Fairey).
On that level alone, the surface level, the documentary is pretty straightforward and just plain works.
But with a couple mysterious tricksters behind the film, you feel like you just can’t take “Exit” for what it is, which is why so many conspiracy theories have begun to emerge around the flick. Suggestions range from “Mr. Brainwash” being a construct/collaboration between Fairey and Banksy, “Guetta” actually being Banksy in disguise or the whole film being a construct my mind-melting director Spike Jonze.
The conspiracy arguments are fair, because the dramatic irony of Guetta’s journey is just too rich that it must be scripted. Banksy even obliquely admits it in this “Wired” article, where he comments on how Guetta more or less trespasses into the art world the same way he trespassed into the street art world as a videographer (which ironically, the original street artists trespass on private property to produce their own art. But I digress…)
Why would Banksy and Fairey construct a film/persona like Mr. Brainwash then? It could be a guilty reaction against their own hype/success, which has turned their art into crass commercialism (there’s a lot of “Obey” t-shirts out there).
Important clues from the film worth thinking about: Fairey talking about his “Obey” logos, which essentially don’t mean anything, then they are seen anywhere and are talked about and gain power, Banksy showing off his collection of counterfeit bills that he can’t distribute, the unreal awfulness of “Life Remote Control,” the plain suburban art collector with an original Warhol in her closet.
Either way, if the documentary is “real” or “fake,” the film’s message about the shifty nature of art celebrity and success doesn’t change, even if “Mr. Brainwash” is a sham. I think the creators of film want audiences to push back against all forms of art; both the hyped “celebrities” like Banksy and the unknown street artists imitating Banksy. By showing (or perhaps being) an elaborate sham, I think they simply want audiences to be more critical, and if anything, pay more attention to everything else BUT the elephant in the room.
As a post-script, I hope that Banksy never reveals himself… we’re richer having the mythology than just finding out it’s just some guy from some art school. To me, it’s like “Godspeed You Black Emperor!” and the mythology they built up: I never really ever want to see their photographs, or see them interviewed on Muchmusic or something, and whatever I have built up in my head about who they are will always be more interesting and gratifying than what they are: musicians.