If you read anything about Exit Through the Gift Shop before you see it, it’s probably either (A) a piece debating whether the film is a true documentary or a fiction feature in the guise of a documentary, or (B) a masturbatory rhapsody extolling the endless virtues of street artist Banksy, who is credited as the film’s author. I’m not convinced that either of these discussions is entirely worth having, but in order to understand why, you’ll have to either read the plot summary in the following paragraphs or see the film for yourself.
The film chronicles the rise of one Thierry Guetta, a opportunistic hack-of-all-trades who tries his hand first at designer clothing retail, documentary filmmaking, and finally street art. He achieves financial stability through the first, makes valuable contacts with the second, and explodes in a spontaneous blaze of hype with the third. After his massive gallery opening—his first art show of any kind—he seems to become the darling of the art world, consequently sacrificing his indie credibility with his street art colleagues.
Aside from being something of a nuisance, Guetta (street name “Mister Brainwash”) is condemned by a who’s-who of street artists for his lack of talent, his impossibly quick rise to fame/infamy, and for his eagerness to “sell out.” People like Banksy, Space Invader and Shepard Fairey (creator of the iconic Obama image, for which he is currently being sued) appear throughout the film, either while creating their art on the streets for Guetta’s camera or for talking-head style interviews.
The film works very well as a condemnation of the people who eat up work such as that produced by Guetta. When did such non-insights as “He seems to be saying something interesting about the nature of celebrity” become acceptable as the final statement of one’s experience of a work of art rather than the opening salvo? The “interpretations” offered by art enthusiasts throughout the film paint a pretty damning portrait of the level of engagement that street art (or, I’d argue, any art) usually receives. This aspect of the film, however, is underplayed, as I can’t imagine Banksy would want to criticize the very people that have made him into the folk hero that he has become.
Instead, Banksy is far more interested in letting Guetta dig his own grave. By allowing him to stumble over the artistic intentions behind certain works (most of which we see being created for him by a staff in his employ), Banksy wants us to see how stupid Guetta is, that he isn’t a “real” artist. But because Banksy himself doesn’t attempt to articulate the intentionality behind his own work, the criticism comes off as unfair and even mean-spirited (especially since the film paints Guetta as at least slightly mentally-handicapped). For all we know, Banksy could come off as an even bigger hack than Guetta if he tried to put the meaning of his art into words.
Whether the film is a sincere documentary or not has no impact on the entertainment value that one derives from watching it. What it does change is the tenor of the film’s message. Either way, Banksy’s diatribe against the commercialism of contemporary art and his plea for the preservation of the sanctity of street art comes through loud and clear. But as a work of fiction, we see Banksy as a prankster with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. If the film is really the documentary it purports to be, then Banksy just comes off as a holier-than-thou bellyacher. It makes you wonder why they marketed the film as a documentary at all.
Exit Through the Gift Shop currently plays at the AMC Forum 22.