It’d be easy after hearing the premise of Exit Through the Gift Shop to dump it into the same category as Dogtown and Z-Boys or Train on the Brain: it’s essentially a documentary that purports to dive into a subculture (namely, the world of street art) and reveal it to the world. But the reality is, this film is not just about fringe artists and punks: it’s about the nature of art and culture itself, and the dangers of post-modern emptiness in a world that can monetize pessimism.
And you can’t really tell that this is the case from the first half of the movie. It starts out innocently enough: it’s the story of a man named Thierry Guetta who obsessively records his life, and of how those recordings end up accidentally documenting the emerging underground street art scene. It’s a clever way to frame a documentary, and a film this clean and stylish that did only this would still be a stand-out.
But obviously that’s not what we’re in for with a name like Banksy attached to the film. The legendary street art phantom meets Guetta and tells him to do something with the footage. So Guetta finally edits together a film from the hours and hours of street art footage he has collected over the years. But it turns out Guetta’s version of the documentary is a terrible mess, so Banksy steps in to take over, telling Guetta to instead try to do some street art himself.
And that’s where things get ugly / complicated / awesome.
Over the course of the rest of the film, Guetta transforms himself into the biggest up and coming name in the street art world under the name Mr. Brainwash. But he does so without ever actually producing any interesting work, basically harvesting his pieces from an idea farm and workshop made up of other people. His art is all emptily derived from those around him, pleasant enough to look at, but it’s missing the thing that makes Banksy’s art so interesting.
But the obvious question is: what is that thing that makes great street art? Street artists would have you believe that the greatest examples of their art are great because of their power to divorce meaning from symbol, to create iconic images that don’t even necessarily mean anything.
And in a lot of ways, Guetta has developed the street art movement’s purported central philosophies to their logical conclusion, thereby possibly proving their fundamental unsoundness. Someone like Shephard Fairy seeks to comment on how symbols develop culturally by making a meaningless image seem important by repeating it over and over. But Thierry takes Ferry’s methods iconic styles and repeats THEM over and over, until even the commentary disappears, leaving only the form, the bare shambles of what used to be symbols.
So Banksy seems to be saying, with this film, that the thing that makes street art a legitimate art form isn’t just it’s emptiness and cultural nihilism. If that were the case, Mr. Brainwash would be a luminary like Banksy himself. Instead, Banksy seems to say that what makes street art great are the things it shares in common with all great art: its ideas, its grammar, its influence on culture. Put differently, the central thesis of this film could be that street art of itself isn’t really any more interesting than any other art. It has to be done well to actually have any artistic value.
But “value” is a multi-shaded term; it’s not just a cultural term, but a monetary term.
Let’s return to that film that Guetta put together that marks the turning point of the film. It was a jumbled mess of a film, and it’s obvious to even a casual viewer that, even though it has all of the right footage, it isn’t accomplishing anything artistically. But when we see Guetta’s exhibit of giant spray-cans and Warhol-like prints, droves of people seem to think he’s legit now, that his art is actually kind of cool.
And that’s the key: the difference between the two isn’t one of quality, it’s one of marketing. When something’s marketed as anarchic street-art, our critical brains can sometimes turn off as we revel in / pay for a piece of that fuck-you attitude. And even though the ethos of the street art world seems to be saying “fuck you,” it is, just like the art it mocks, actually saying “pay me.”
But we are tricked. The fuck you ethos is a really huge selling point, clouding our vision and making us fork out a lot of money to feel like we’re saying “you’ll never get my money!” The street art movement might have started as playfully nihilistic vandalism, but as it has started reaching for sustainability through monetization, it’s become just as much an empty marketing machine as the art it’s criticizing as being just that.
There’s some conversation about whether Guetta is a real person, whether his entirely empty art actually did take the art world by storm. The message of the film, though, seems to be that it doesn’t matter: when it’s marketed right, fake sells just as well as real, that, for a few different reasons, hugely inauthentic is a decent substitute for authentic. But it’s more than just hype: it’s what the hype stands for. In a certain cultural world, we ignore the hype that says “Justin Bieber is great,” but we are fully sucked in by the hype that says “Justin Bieber sucks, so buy this instead.”
And that’s why this film is such an elegant criticism of the authenticity-seeking hipster irony. One approach to authenticity in recent years is to just call everything inauthentic until you start to feel you actually have tapped into something authentic (see Hipster Runoff). It’s what makes Rebecca Black, Simon Cowell, and even Banksy so popular: monetizing the power to rail against inauthenticity turns BUYING things into an act of authenticity. When Mr. Brainwash is long forgotten, that will be the lasting message of Exit Through The Gift Shop: in a world where everyone is wallowing in ironic enjoyment and weaponized emptiness, nihilism will sell like a McRib sandwich.