Words On Film: Exit Through the Gift Shop

How can we define art? Is art predicated by its creative process, namely struggle combined with innovation? Or can art just happen through emulation and market savvy? Thirdly, perhaps art is a mutable quantity that never really existed in the first place. Maybe art is a Schrödinger's cat scenario. Maybe art only happens because we open that box, looking at the work and ascribing a value. But in so doing, we as art viewers (and perhaps amateur aestheticists) make some things art by consensus, even if we don't know any better. These are some of the underlying questions of street-artist and provocateur Banksy's film Exit Through the Gift Shop, assuming, considering some conjecture that the film too may be a hoax, this documentary actually depicts what it claims to. Either way, the film is a carefully crafted, humorous and sometimes snide look into the beginnings of street art, obsession, documentation and the commoditization of artist properties (both for "heroic" and "sell-out" purposes).

The film, by Banksy's (or a shrouded man labeled as such) admission, was originally intended to be a chronicle of street art from its beginnings. But, the true main character in study, Thierry Guetta, a French shop owner and amateur cameraman, turns out to be "more interesting" than anything Banksy could have told us about himself. It is, in the opening frame, a beautiful bait-and-switch. Audiences seeking a rare look into street art's most sought after folk hero instead get the story of an eccentric goofball. That's assuming that Banksy really exists as a single person, or that he's not just a hoax himself. But, let's not get too crazy on conspiracy theories. In the film, Guetta makes an implied fortune running a store in L.A. where he sells products imported from Europe, like handbags and Adidas, that are otherwise unavailable in the United States. He admits, gleefully, to applying a huge mark up for his wares, essentially because he can. This is important primarily because the arc of the film ties Guetta's business sense into his "artistic value" at the end. Interestingly, Guetta is obsessive, and tells a story of his mother's death that precipitated his predilection for video taping everything in his life. He doesn't want to miss anything ever again, so he records it all.

By recording the world, Guetta doesn't really live in it. Yes, it's possible to enjoy life via the camera, but when one's focus lies in immortalizing moments, those moments also become infinitely separate from the self. In this way, Guetta becomes adept at capturing life, but not at expressing it. And perhaps that is why his own street art is merely a reworking of styles from his friends/obsessions Shepard Fairey and Banksy (plus others). Art can be defined as an expression of life experience, and Guetta spends the majority of his life recording rather than experiencing, so he isn't qualified to create something tied to himself. He has no self to express. Instead, he can only record and regurgitate what he has seen, using a fair, if minute, portion of creativity to distinguish his work from that of others. So, Guetta, who follows and idolizes street artists, who seems to seek some genuine camaraderie, friendship and possibly love from the "cool kids," becomes an artist because Banksy (seemingly and merely) suggests the idea to get rid of him.

Guetta applies his previously demonstrated business acumen to his art. During the construction of his show in L.A.'s abandoned CBS Studios, Guetta has canned responses for his work, all of it mash-ups of pop art and street art, but he spends his greatest enthusiasm on the phone, telling unnamed people the prices for his work. At one point, he even paints a simple eye-patch on another artist's illustration and claims that now it was worth thousands of dollars more than it was before. The beauty is that people buy it. Guetta is a success. And his "friends" Banksy and Fairey show some notable jealousy. On one hand, I could argue that there's some artful in Guetta's business sense. But on the other, he bastardizes the work of others for a profit. In either case, success appears to come his way, defining the film's title. Exit Through the Gift Shop implies that you can go to a museum, see the real art and then purchase the souvenirs. You can go to the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa and then on the way out buy a postcard of the painting. The postcard isn't art, but it is an object of implied value. Guetta makes objects of implied value. He is the gift shop man, who once sold European clothing to Americans and then sold street art to a hungry, demanding populous. There's no message in his work, though he claims via his moniker Mr. Brainwash, that the art is about how pop culture cleans our minds of their ability to create novelty.

If the film and the character are all a hoax, something claimed by several film critics, then the joke about brainwashing takes on a new level. Banksy could have created Guetta and then convinced us that he created objects disguised as art, posing the larger question of art's true existence. If you can buy a piece of art, if art is something that is no longer for art's sake in ANY way, then maybe it ceases to become art. Maybe art is everything, or maybe art is nothing. And perhaps Banksy's last laugh is that he succeeded in convincing film-goers that Guetta exists at all, much in the way that he printed fake British bank notes with Lady Di's face on them and then used them as actual currency. After all, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a film that people pay to see. It is art created to depict events, and real/true or not, we all bought it from him.

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