"I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art. I don't do that anymore."
Exit Through the Gift Shop is both a critical dissection on the art community and itself a true work of art, executed seamlessly by the notoriously anonymous British graffiti artist, Banksy, who essentially takes the raw footage from another failed, disastrous documentary and re-purposes it into his own "street art disaster movie" with a compelling narrative.
Banksy's film looks at every aspect of the creation of art and its consumption as it works on so many levels. It starts out as the machinations of a strange Frenchman, Thierry Guetta (aka Mr. Brainwash or MBW), who documents his entire life with no reason or purpose.
Guetta is a well-meaning, aloof, somewhat dim Frenchman who somehow manages to break into the street art community through his eagerness, loyalty, and usefulness. Eventually, Guetta somewhat accidentally begins documenting the entire street art movement. However, he has no purpose for his footage. His countless hours of videotape go on unwatched as Guetta is simply obsessed with consuming and has no desire to really create or foster his own art, just yet anyways. It becomes clear Guetta, through no malice but with child-like curiousity, has a fascination with art, but fails to appreciate or understand it at all.
In one memorable scene, Guetta asks pop artist Ron English if he drew a piece he is admiring and English, with a deadpan response, tells him that he is, in fact, looking at a painting. Guetta remains unfazed and unembarrassed.
Guetta is eventually finally compelled by the street art community to make his documentary. The results are disastrous as it becomes clear that Guetta's fascination with art is completely superficial and he has no concept of creating art and can only consume it. His documentary, Life Remote Control, partially shown in the film, is an unwatchable mess of incomprehensible images and quick cuts. Banksy decides to takeover the project, which eventually becomes Exit Through the Gift Shop, the very film we are watching, and includes Guetta's material. Bansky then encourages Guetta to make his own art in order to understand the conception of it. This is a huge mistake as Guetta creates a massive manufacturing network to create and mass produce his own art, which is essentially derivative pop art so derivative of Andy Warhol's ideas that it renders it meaningless.
What Bansky has done so well is encapsulate the entire street art movement through the eyes of a bystander, in this case Guetta, who then mimics and regurgitates the art on a superficial, commercial level so far it devalues the art form. Guetta as Mr. Brainwash becomes a huge commercial and financial success within the pop art realm as the street art community who fostered Guetta revile the monster they have created. Guetta, to his credit, remains happy-go-lucky and takes everything in stride as he always seems happy to be along for the ride and his role in the documentary is not only cooperative, but he is responsible for its existence. He often says his entire motivation for art is to impress, not only Bansky, but the street art community he helped thrive.
The critical nature of the art community and derisiveness of Guetta's art does not become completely explicit until the last act of the film that essentially evolves into a hit job against Guetta's massive success . In the end, Banksy, Invader, Shepard Fairey, and all the street artists who created Mr. Brainwash, ultimately relay their extremely mixed feelings about his derivative work, the hype, and over-commercialization it brought to street art after Banksy and others were able to bring legitimacy, prestige, and political commentary to the craft.
The film is thoughtful, entertaining, endearing, sharp, and hilariously subversive. It even works as a possibly daring play or trick on the audience, teasing the viewer to rethink the nature of the documentary as an elaborate hoax or as a straightforward narrative. Can the unbelievably unaware nature of Guetta be real? Both main subjects, Banksy and Guetta, as well as all the artists featured are terribly unreliable narrators with their own agendas. It is hard to believe that Guetta is so oblivious to everything, but easy to believe how incredibly thoughtful and knowing Banksy is. Guetta goes from an obsessive consumer of media with no purpose to an art lacky to becoming a famous artist himself.
Exit Through the Gift Shop satisfies on various levels as both a straight documentary that explores every aspect of the creation and consumption of art along with documenting the street art movement from a very pure, underground, guerrilla phenomenon to a respected art form, bought and sold, collected, and shown in major galleries to a completely commercialized, overexposed, over-saturated, meaningless medium that was sort of destroyed by the people who worked so hard to foster, create, and build it up.
Banky's film, both as art and a commentary on art, lives up to his thoughtful, sharp, attention-grabbing body of work and says a lot about making and consuming art. Banksy is a master craftsman, artfully composing and constructing the story of Thierry Guetta, weaving in the history of graffiti and street art, sublimely inserting his own commentary, and creating a fluid, compelling, entertaining, and humorous narrative around the documentary form.