Last night I was invited to attend a preview of Exit Through The Gift Shop, the much hyped documentary by the street artist Banksy. By now, you all know that I’m an avid documentary junkie. I’ll watch a documentary about paint drying on a wall if it’s well made. I’ll admit, I went into the screening room expecting to hate it- so was Banksy able to win me over?
Although I have no idea how much money was dumped into this production, or if big backers were involved, Exit Through The Gift Shop was well-edited and produced.
The actual content of the documentary is a whole other ball of wax. As one of the very first magazines to document the street art craze, B/D has watched street art go from the ugly step-child of traditional graffiti to a surprisingly more popular form of expression in less than 10 years. Much of this has to do with the accessibility of street art: your average Joe doesn’t understand why someone would illegally sneak around the city late at night, just to paint a nickname. However, if you’re stenciling an image of a cute bunny holding a gun, you get a pass.Understanding the complexities and arbitrary rules of the graffiti takes years to fully grasp- whereas street art, with its non-threatening and familiar cast of characters- is instantly understandable to a mass culture.
As street art becomes more popular, a snowball effect ensues: pretty soon you have a massive movement of people creating “art” with little or no working knowledge of it. At first it was interesting to see artists re-using – Warholian ideas….. but how many Marylin Monroe rip off posters do we need to see before its just boring? This problem, the process of dilution, is one of the underlying questions that Exit Through the Gift Show tackles.
The story line follows a behind-the-scenes account of Banksy’s rise to superstardom within the street art world, creating intelligent outdoor installations and alterations on a massive scale. (On a side note- Banksy might think of himself as a street art rebel, but his ideas actually fall within the canon of art history. Maybe he doesn’t know this, but something tells me that he’s not as much as an outsider as he makes himself out to be.)
We then meet the protagonist Mr. Brainwash, a french ex-pat who discovers street art by accident by way of his cousin (Space Invader) and begins to obsessively document the street art scene. Mr.Brainwash, to put it simply, is an idiot with a heart of gold. He seems to be a passionate man full of energy who is going through a midlife crisis. Unfortunately for the streets of LA, Mr. Brainwash is all heart and no brain, deciding to become “an artist” without any understanding of what that means. He goes on to dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into his art show…. that’s nothing more than a Disney land attraction filled with crap. Of course, the masses love the show, as everything in it is watered down one-liners that look like bad movie props. Even his friends can’t defend the work. In an interview, Mr. Brainwash claims that in 50 years, we will all see that he is a “real” artist. I’d like to remind MBW of the graffiti artists in NYC during the 1980’s who thought they were going to have long careers in the fine art world. Where are they now? Their 15 minutes came, but most of their careers were short-lived.
The question is, if Mr. Brainwash can make a million dollars making garbage, where does that leave the rest of the street art world? It’s obvious that any moron with a bucket of wheat paste and a lot of energy can make a name for himself. Even Banksy seems at a loss for words at the end of the movie. Where do you go from here? How many “secret warehouse, 5 day only” art shows can Banksy do? Sure, you’ll get 20 thousand people to show up. But are they there for the art, or did they show up to get wrapped up in the hype? By now we all know that the street art bubble has burst. Many street-art galleries are now either closed or struggling. While I’m sure Banksy will survive, as he has proven to be one step ahead of the masses, I don’t think many of these street-artists-turned-gallery-artists will have career longevity.
In the end, I’d grade the documentary as a solid B+. It’s worth seeing in the theaters, though ultimately I had a bit of mixed emotions. I could not help but think about the subtle irony of the whole thing. The movie, in some ways, serves a quiet acknowledgment to the end of an era. It served as a sort of punctuation mark for another moment in art history that arrived, was hyped and embraced, then slowly ate itself into a self-referential and infinitely derivative existence.This is not to say there will never been another innovative street artist or that what happens from here on out is futile. It’s much more about the dialogue that surrounds the fact that when something becomes the ‘cool thing’ and is blindly embraced by the masses, it becomes something completely different then what it was in the beginning.
The pioneers of the movement, as with the case of Banksy, are likely left with the decision of ‘where to go next’. In a recent interview with Times Online, Banksy was asked this very question, to which he responded, “I was planning on making some huge paintings about sleepwalking our way towards the apocalypse, but I ended up going to the pub and getting some crisps.” Sounds like no one’s quite figured it out, just yet.