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So much of Exit Through the Gift Shop is shrouded in mystery. The documentary film’s (purported) creator, Banksy, is an elusive British graffiti artist whose identity is unknown, even though he’s the darling of the international art world who routinely sells screen prints for six figure prices. In his first foray into film, Banksy presents us with a characteristically enigmatic but well-executed piece of pop art, billed as “the world’s first Street Art disaster movie.”

By the end of the film—which is ostensibly about the street art movement—most viewers are left wondering how much, if any, of what they just saw was real. Certainly this was Banksy’s intent. For him, art is always something of a Warhol-meets-Baudrillard prank that questions reality, subverts the art establishment, or turns the table on the dilettante consumer. His street/installation art (whether it be a live painted elephant in the middle of a room, or a Guantánamo blow-up doll smuggled into Disneyland) tends to push the envelope and make people ask themselves “is this art or is it just a joke?”

To which Banksy would probably retort: “What’s the difference?”

On the surface, here’s how the film plays out: A Los Angeles-based Frenchman named Thierry Guetta has a camera and films every single thing in his life. Sometime in the recent past, he becomes interested in the L.A. street art scene and starts following its most notable graffiti auteurs around at night, filming their guerilla exploits. Soon the biggest names in the street art world start coming to Thierry for his videography skills—people like Space Invader or Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the “Obey” sticker campaign and the iconic Obama “Hope” poster. Eventually Guetta meets and befriends Banksy, who insists that Guetta use his vast array of camera footage to create the definitive street art documentary. Along the way, Banksy apparently decides that Guetta himself should become the subject of the film, and that he should become a successful street artist in his own right.

The second half of Exit is where things start to get a little meta. The cameras, now being directed by Banksy (or by people on Banksy’s payroll), turn their focus on the exploding career of “Mr. Brainwash,” the name Guetta adopts as he sets out to become the Next Big Thing in the art world.

It works. He somehow amasses a huge body of work in a matter of months and becomes the toast of the town in L.A. and throughout the world. But was Mr. Brainwash for real, or simply another elaborate Banksy hoax?

It’s a testament to the brilliance of this film that we are never quite sure about the answer. And that we really don’t care. Whether Banksy is conning us or not, it’s still a spectacularly enjoyable, insightful film.

Banksy is always exploring paradoxes and contradictions in his art. And Exit, I think, is his attempt to explore and understand the paradox that is Banksy himself: Underground graffiti artist-turned-worldwide art celebrity. What does it mean that someone whose work is all about upsetting bourgeois balance and critiquing consumerism has become one of the most sought after “must-owns” by collectors and curators throughout the world? What does it mean for street art in general that it has become so lucrative—turning its insurgent street kid pioneers (Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Mr. Brainwash) into millionaire corporations filling the walls of galleries, museums, and gift shops?

It means that, on some level, art is and has always been as much about commerce as it has been about creativity. The film is called Exit Through the Gift Shop for a reason. The thing about an art museum is that it has to have a gift shop. Art—if it is to be seen, experienced en masse, valued for posterity—must be paid for. Money must change hands. Artists must make a living.

This is not to say that art only ever derives its meaning through checkbooks, appraisals, and Sotheby’s. Quite the opposite. The meaning of an art piece begins with the artist, and with the immediate community/context into which the art is created. Before it is ever pronounced “Art” it is simply an expressive act. Before it is ever monetized it is simply made.

This is particularly true of the street art in Exit. In the first half of the film, we watch Guetta’s fantastic footage of various street artists in the act of creating, under veil of night and on unauthorized public canvases, totally illegally. It’s raw and real, untainted by anything remotely profit-seeking. Only in the latter half of the film—as we watch Banksy’s protégé Mr. Brainwash become an overnight crown prince of the contemporary art world—do the realities of commerce re-imagine the “meaning” of the work.

Some of these issues reminded me of last year’s sublime Summer Hours (dir. Olivier Assayas), which among other things explored the meaning of art in both the private/community context and the public marketplace.

That film was about a French family who, after the death of the matriarch, sells off a number of valuable family art pieces and heirlooms to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It’s a solemn study in the history and meaning of art objects from one generation to another. The meaning a family imbues in a vase or a desk may not be the same as that of a collector who pays a fortune to acquire it.

And likewise in the case of Exit: One doubts that the meaning of Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” propaganda imagery in its original context is quite the same as the lucrative Obey clothing line that now exists. Or that Banksy’s drive-by graffiti provocations on the streets of the West Bank have much at all to do with the screen print of the same imagery that a Beverly Hills housewife just bought at an auction.

Banksy, or any artist, is keenly aware of the temporality of art. No creation lasts forever. Sometimes it only lasts a day. It won’t be loved or valued in the same way forever. Trends come and go; tastes change. In the art world, fame can be made overnight, given the right combination of mystery, money and hype. In a world that increasingly seems defined by its ruthless transience, the fast-tracked trajectory of art from the street to the gallery, and finally the museum gift shop, makes about as much sense as anything.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Bret McCracken

Brett McCracken regularly writes movie reviews and features for Christianity Today and Relevant, in addition to working full-time at Biola University as managing editor of Biola Magazine. His first book, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, comes out in August. He comments on movies, media, and popular culture issues at his blog, The Search.

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