Exit Through The Gift Shop

A few days ago I watched Exit Through The Gift Shop*, a documentary directed by Banksy, the famous graffiti artist.

It has been nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars and is available on Netflix Watch Instantly.

The complexity of the story is hard to describe without going into a lot of detail, but essentially, it is centered around Thierry Guetta, a man who found himself videotaping the emerging street art scene at the turn of the century, traveling around the world abetting and filming the most famous street artists of our time, and eventually meeting Banksy. Towards the end of the film, upon Banksy’s encouragement, Thierry becomes an artist himself. Thierry, now self-named Mr. Brainwash (MBW), hires people to create art per his vision and to organize a massive art gallery opening. MBW engineers buzz surrounding his show and sells his pieces for arbitrary amounts of tens of thousands of dollars.

From seeing the success and career trajectories of the street artists, Thierry learned how to skip all the steps and make himself just as famous and expensive as them without doing any of the work. It is this same thought process that caused him to call himself “Mr. Brainwash.” In his words, he realized that all art was was brainwash–making people think there is significance to something–through repetition in the case of street artist Shepard Fairey (or Adolf Hitler), and/or through MBW’s PR tactics.

Considering Thierry Guetta is probably not 100% there, the fact that he has no artistic training nor does he actually produce any of his own art, the fact that we see how he manipulated a demand for his product, and the fact that his prices are completely fabricated–the film begs the question of “what is art?” and “how is it valued?” To paraphrase Banksy, “I used to encourage everyone to become an artist. I don’t really do so much of that anymore;” we are left feeling as though Mr. Brainwash somehow cheated.

It makes me realize that when we buy art, we aren’t so much buying the product as much as we are buying the process and the artist. That’s why paintings by famous artists are more expensive than paintings by less famous artists, why prints cost less than paintings, and why posters cost lest than prints.

Is it right that Mr. Brainwash’s art sells for as much as $100,000 (February 2010 auction) when he doesn’t actually know how to produce it? Should his graphic designers and builders get a piece of the pie? And isn’t it wild that the only reason it’s worth $100,000 is because that’s how much someone would pay for it? Isn’t it wild that–to a large extent–that’s why EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD has the value it has??

Digging a little deeper, I propose that Banksy and the other street artists, along with any arts-appreciators, are uncomfortable with Thierry/MBW’s success mostly because it threatens their own. If someone can make art this way, it lessens the value of what other “true” artists do. If expensive art is created by manipulating PR and hiring people to make art for you, art that copies the styles of other artists, then the standard by which we define art has been lowered. Mr. Brainwash becomes right: art is brainwash.

Of course, there are those who propose that the whole film is not really a documentary at all, but is instead all a creation of Banksy’s. Has he just been playing a trick on us all along?

Either way, since film is itself an art form, the question remains the same: What is art? How is it valued?


*I’ve given some thought to this title. It’s significance is not obvious. Think about it. Here’s what I’ve come up with: Thierry made the process of making art about making money instead of revealing/exploring the human condition. He reduced art to money, which paradoxically makes it less valuable. Banksy says something along these lines in the movie–that his art was never about the money.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Exit Through The Gift Shop

  1. antonio

    i’ve always assumed that the title, Exit Through The Gift Shop, was a dig at large-scale art museums, many of which are designed to lead you through, or near, their gift shops as you enter/exit. it’s hard to imagine a more fitting way to make one aware of the commodification of artworks than to end your visit to a museum amongst Van Gogh shot glasses and onesies.

    watching the film was bittersweet, given the contrasting depictions of truly imaginative and skilled artists–creating works that inspire and challenge us–alongside Thierry, who seems to ride in on their coattails, seemingly lacks the authenticity of the others, and yet is still handsomely rewarded for his labors. in a sense, one could say that Thierry represents the gift shop, which sells imitations of the artwork housed in a museum. he, like the gift shop, makes money on the coattails of the art that populates the galleries.

    however, it’s hard to say that what Thierry is creating and selling isn’t art. as a definition of what art is, i tend towards George Dickie’s “institutional theory of art,” which basically defines artistic works merely as the artifacts that are accepted as art by an art community, the artworld. what this amounts to is a demystification of artworks, and the properties inherent in them, such as craftsmanship, authenticity, beauty, depth of public commentary, etc. likewise, it demystifies the notion of the artist: the artist is merely somebody who’s accepted as such by the artworld, not necessarily someone who’s imaginative or particularly skilled.

    rather bleak theory. but, it’s the only way i can make sense of why people like Thierry can get rich creating and selling his works as art.

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