Graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Despite having to creep about at night and lie to your mum it’s actually the most honest artform available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on some of the best walls a town has to offer, and nobody is put off by the price of admission. — Banksy
Street art is a curious thing. It’s art where there’s not “supposed” to be art. Generally illegal, often subversive, and usually temporary, street art is capable of offering the type of quick glimpse at an honest moment in time that typical gallery/museum art often eschews and/or is incapable of. To be sure, there’s graffiti that amounts to nothing more than ugly vandalism, gang tagging, stupid teenagers with too much time on their hands, etc. But there’s also graffiti (and stencils, stickers, etc.) which rises above thoughtless self-indulgence, intending to make an activist statement, to offer a derisive jab at some aspect of society, or maybe just to pretty things up. Street art is a beautiful and fascinating aspect of the art world often ignored by the mainstream and looked down upon by the artistic elite. Exit Through the Gift Shop is not particularly intended to change such an opinion, nor is it particularly likely to do so. In fact, the documentary is no longer, as originally intended, just about street art.
That is what the film started out to be, as we learn — an intended documentation of street art. Specifically, Thierry (pronounced “Terry”) Guetta, a French man living in Los Angeles, had become obsessed with filming everything in his life in the ’90s. As his obsession turned into a compulsion and all but took over his life, Thierry started filming his cousin, a French street artist known as Space Invader (or just Invader). This eventually led to Thierry filming Shepard Fairey, known to many as the artist behind the famous Obama “Hope” image, but who rose to “fame” behind his Andre the Giant/Obey pieces. As Fairey explains it, he thought it was important that someone document the creation and application of his street art, particularly given its temporary nature, and Thierry was a willing documentarian. In fact, Thierry was often a full-on “accomplice,” helping Fairey and other street artists by scouting locations, carrying supplies or acting as a look out (camera still in hand, of course, at all times).
By the mid-2000s, Thierry became increasingly intent on capturing the most infamous and anonymous of street artists, Britain’s Banksy. Banksy is an extremely popular (in certain circles) street artist, respected for the wit and biting social commentary present in many of his pieces. He also gained a bit of mainstream notoriety after repeatedly managing to plant his own pieces of art in various museums, where they often stayed for days or weeks before being detected and removed. Through a stroke of almost random luck, Thierry actually managed to meet Banksy in 2006, when Banksy was in Los Angeles to do some work. Thierry showed Banksy around LA, suggesting the best walls and locations to use, and Banksy allowed Thierry to film his process. Later, Banksy invited Thierry to England and offered Thierry the type of access into his inner-workings heretofore unafforded to anyone. Over time, Thierry not only became Banky’s personal documentarian, but something akin to a friend.
At the same time, Banksy was beginning to gain a type of fame and success in certain corners of the art world, and was even seeing some of his pieces selling at auction houses for substantial coin. In response to his budding success, Banksy began pushing Thierry to put the long-in-“production” street art documentary together. This would be no easy task, because the documentary did not really “exist” at the time, since Thierry never watched any of his footage, simply tossing the endless tapes of footage into storage boxes. But Banksy wanted a street art documentary put together, as he explains to us in the film, because he wanted something showing what street art is really about — that is, that it’s about passion and subversion, not money and success.
So Banksy pushed Thierry to do something with all his footage and it’s at this point that we bear witness to one of the highlights of the film, and I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, Thierry’s documentary about street art winds up being turned on its head, as Banksy decides to take over editorial/directorial control and make it as much a documentary about Thierry as about street art itself. At Banksy’s suggestion, Thierry himself becomes a bit of a street artist, going by the moniker Mr. Brainwash, and ultimately winds up throwing a massive gallery showing in Los Angeles, in an attempt to ape a similar show Banksy had put on a year or so before. Thierry is a fascinating character, and while Mr. Brainwash’s art is derivative of pop artists from Andy Warhol to Banksy himself, and generally insubstantial, it’s also wildly “successful.” Thierry quickly turns Mr. Brainwash into a type of industrial street artist sell-out, and Fairey and Banksy are both rather appalled at the monster they’ve created.
At one point in the film, Banksy wonders whether Thierry is passionate or crazy, and decides to believe that Thierry is just passionate. By the end of the film, it’s far less clear where Thierry really lives on that spectrum, although he seems to skew far more towards the crazy end. But that crazy ultimately means Banksy is kind of right when he notes that Thierry is far more interesting a documentary subject than Banksy himself. And as a result, Exit Through the Gift Shop not only manages to offer some interesting insight into the world of street art, but it provides a humorous, and sometimes hilarious, look at a man obsessed with meaningless success.
Author’s Note: This review comes in two parts. You just read Part I, reviewing the film itself in a vacuum. Part II looks at the film more broadly as a suspected attempt to subvert the art world.