“Exit Through the Gift Shop” began, with all intents and purposes, as a documentary capturing the impossible: street artists at work. Artist after artist was captured choosing walls to hang their work, printing at Kinko’s and, in essence, breaking a very grey law. Is it vandalism or is it art? Should it be torn down or sold? I was captivated, my heart rate increased at the unbelievable idea that these men had let someone film pieces whose shelf life was becoming only a few days.
The film showcased some very well known artists, following Banksy, the most undercover of them all, Shepard Fairey, and Invader. If you do not know these artists by name, you most likely know their work, Fairey’s piece of Obama being the most ubiquitous.
This film was pitched as an inside look at a closed off world, shot by Thierry Guetta. In reality, it was a film directed and edited by Banksy, about Thierry Guetta’s footage.
“We both thought this was going to be a video about Banksy, but it ended up on something else entirely. It was very misleading. The actual ‘artist’ the documentary revolved around was a thief, and I’m surprised many of the real artists in the video would have supported it” , quip viewers Molly and Matt Lewis.
The first half of the film was intriguing. It revealed what the everyday viewer never sees. While we catch a glimpse of a piece on a billboard or read articles about Banksy’s work all over the world, this film offered a chance to see how that art went up. If the film, in its entirety, had remained on this subject it would have been successful.
To its detriment and my disappointment, the film took a turn towards Thierry, who had filmed it. He had followed these artists for so long, he decided to take a shot at making the same kind of work. He gave his footage to Banksy, to edit and turn into a film, and he turned his efforts towards an impossibly large show.
At his opening, which drew in thousands of attendants and over one million dollars in revenue, a viewer aptly described Thierry, self-appointed Mr. Brainwash, (“MBW”) as a “one trick pony”. Copying the style of street art that already existed, adding no new voice of his own, Thierry managed to exemplify pop culture at its best/worst. In an extravagant display of copy-catting Thierry made the LA art scene and street art look duped, only interested for the hoopla of it all.
What I loved most about this specific genre was its disregard for the gallery and its mass appeal to an audience moving further and further away from the high art scene. It was an adventure to stumble upon a newly plastered Shepard Fairey or a freshly stenciled Banksy. Thierry cheapened that experience irreparably. He mimicked what he saw, hired a staff to make his work, and did it all without a message. What makes good street art unique is its ability to clearly deliver an idea, usually political, to highly trafficked areas.
This film ended the era prematurely. The intrigue was still fresh. The mystery of the movement still existed. They should have waited for culture to move on, for the movement to become irrelevant on its own, and then released a more edited version of this film. An art that was mainstream friendly has now been cheapened; I anticipate a Banksy app for the iphone in the works already. What was edgy and undercover has now become commercial, bankable, which was never the purpose, argues Banksy, “ He broke the rules, not that there is supposed to be any.”
While I do mourn the early end of an amazing era in art, I think Fairey and Banksy will fare just fine. Fairey went unapologetically commercial a while ago, and still continues to make generation apropos work that will always be socially relevant. Banksy has kept his hidden identity in tact and I can’t foresee him losing his edge, which is a viewpoint on political injustice. His art exists not for the purpose to break the rules, but to be seen and strike up conversations few are willing to tackle. While his struggle to remain anonymous will become far more difficult, this is a man with a message that remains pertinent and I look forward to what he will do next.
Do not be fooled; this is not a film about the elusive artists whose work we know but faces we may never. It is a tale of a “poser” who raised a discussion about this era. Is it pertinent if it can be copied? Is it still necessary if a man like Thierry can turn out a show of 200 pieces essentially saying nothing? Because he centralized this conversation he will always be valuable in the art world, much like the Dadaist. He called into question the very idea art. What his body of work looks like doesn’t really matter any more; it’s the conversation that he created that will solidify his place in the end of this era.
Go ahead and see the film, because in the greater discussion of street art it is important. Keep in mind while viewing, however, the impact this will have on the artists it showcases.