Almost as primal as the age-old dichotomy between good and evil is the struggle between art and commerce.
Does the market taint the artist? Does the artist compromise his integrity if he plays to the market? Can art be both commercially successful and still be creatively innovative? And so forth.
All of these issues arise, though they aren’t actually discussed, in “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” a documentary credited to the anonymous British street artist, Banksy. Though his face is never seen, Banksy himself serves as the guiding spirit behind what you see onscreen, as he is interviewed about what we are seeing (with his face hidden in the shadow of a hoodie).
As he explains, the film began as a documentary about Banksy and street artists in general by an L.A.-based Frenchman named Thierry Guetta. The owner of a Melrose Avenue boutique, Thierry was a home-video fiend who seemed to believe that nothing in his life was real unless he captured it on video. So he spends virtually all of his time with a small video camera in his hand, recording the events of his and his family’s life.
(This is later psychologized as his attempt to hang on to what is precious in his life, following the trauma of his mother’s sudden death when he was a pre-teen. It’s a theory to which Thierry himself seems to put the lie when he reveals that his thousands of hours of video are never watched, never even catalogued, barely even labeled – but simply dumped into overflowing bins in his home office.)
On vacation in France, Thierry discovers that his cousin is, in fact, a street artist known as Space Invader. His medium consists of small tile mosaics of the characters from that seminal video game, which he sticks up in various public places under cover of darkness.
Before long, Thierry is spending his spare time following and chronicling Space Invader’s exploits – which leads him to the street artist Shepard Fairey and other outlaw artists. (There is no discussion in the film about the definition of street art, what separates it from simple graffiti or where the line is between street art and vandalism.) Which, finally, leads him to Banksy, one of the most imaginative and satirically-socially conscious of the street artists.
When Thierry promises to obscure his identity, Banksy invites him along for his “installations” and into his studio. Eventually, after Thierry accumulates a mountain of footage, Banksy tells him to go home and edit the movie so that his doc about street art will be of the moment.
But what Thierry comes up with is a kaleidoscopic disaster, “the work of a mental patient,” as Banksy puts it. So Banksy appropriates Thierry’s footage and tells him, instead, to go back to L.A. and create art of his own. Which he does – with unlikely success.
Which leads to the central question of this film: Can anybody be an artist if they just decide to give themselves that title? And the ever-present question of contemporary art: Is art the idea of the thing – or the thing itself?
Thierry seems to take his cues from both Andy Warhol and Mark Kostabi, mass-producing images and even having other people execute his ideas. Thierry christens himself Mr. Brainwash – because street artists have public identities that disguise their private lives – and even emulates Banksy by slapping his massive wallpaper-like pieces (mostly with images of himself) on walls around L.A.
Yet he seems more consumed with the idea of assuming the persona of an artist and how to sell his work than with actually creating art himself. As the film shows, Banksy, Space Invader and the others use their art as both a form of self-expression and to make political statements. But Thierry, in the same way he marketed seconds in his clothing boutique as designer specials, now wants to package himself as an art commodity and build a brand name: Mr. Brainwash.
How greatly he succeeds, thanks to his grandiose and chaotic self-promoted coming-out show, tells you just about everything you needs to know about how easily duped both the public and the art press can be by a determined entrepreneur who proclaims himself an artist.
Thierry Guetta looks like a paunchy Rob Schneider in mutton-chops with a cheesy French accent. He’s a lovable doofus who has a genius for sales – and who eventually realizes that he is his own most saleable commodity. (Or, according to some rumors, he may actually be Banksy himself. That’s part of the film’s charm: deciding whether the whole thing is a put-on or not.)
Outrageous and funny, cheaply shot but knowingly edited, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is as subversive as any of Banksy’s work. Thierry is like a found art object, one who reveals himself gradually as the film goes along until he winds up as someone completely different from who you thought he was when you first encounter him.
Is it art? Who cares? It’s definitely fascinating and engrossingly watchable.