￼“Mr Brainwash is a force of nature, he’s a phenomenon. And I don’t mean that in a good way.” – Banksy
And that about sums it up really. But to elaborate, Exit Through the Gift Shop tells the story of a French-American pork-chop, Thierry Guetta, a shopkeeper come obsessive videographer who, through his cousin Space Invader, becomes transfixed by a slew of street art luminaries, including Shepard Fairey, and finding the elusive Banksy.
Described in the film as the definitive counter-culture movement of our time, akin to punk. It easily becomes apparent that street art, combining graffiti, stenciling, poster and sticker campaigns, is grounded in the subversive, poster art and propaganda. It’s direct lineage tracing to Bleck le Rat, who began working with stencils during the early 80s in Paris and anarcho-punk band Crass, who maintained a graffiti stencil campaign in the Tube during the late 70s and early 80s.
It’s curious that the self-appointed documenter knows so little about art in general i.e. the difference between painting and drawing. Even so and contrary to this lineage, we witness Guetta’s makeover into Mr Brainwash aka MBW. For his first solo extravaganza, at the old CBS studios that sporned I Love Lucy and countless other network hits but is now effectively abandoned, he scrounges Elvis and other cultural icons, including the giant spray-paint can re-branded, à la Andy, as Campbell’s Tomato Spray. Amid the last minute hype approx. 5,000 plus eager MBW enthusiasts line up around the block; Guetta has his 15 minutes. The LA audience pat themselves on the back when they recognise the artist’s work, forgetting that they’re only familiar with it through having seen it plastered everywhere.
While Fairey shakes his head (who surprisingly appears as the so conservative American prep) he’s perhaps the American precursor and certainly a (albeit unwilling) culprit. In a review of E Pluribus Venom, at Jonathan LeVine Gallery for The New York Times, art critic Benjamin Genocchio stated that despite the range of styles and mediums adopted by Fairey, the work comes off as “generic”. Genocchio went on to say that it was tempting to see Fairey’s art as just another luxury commodity.
What I find particularly revealing, through a quick scan of internet descriptions and reviews, is the application of the terms art world and industry. Specifically: ‘consumerist nature of the arts industry’ (Anders Wotzke, cutprintreview); ‘an accomplished ridicule of a flimsy art world… explores the cultural and monetary value of art, exposing the exceptionally fine line that exists between an avant-garde artist and a copycat sell-out’ (Chris Cork, thevine) and ‘regardless of your interest in the art world… it illustrates how beauty and meaning really are in the eye of the beholder and how that eternal phrase still holds true: There’s a sucker born every minute’ (Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald). On the one hand, speaking for the art world and on the other, conveying utter confusion. Very few identify our mindless consumption, ambition, constant exposure and the cult of celebrity; our world at large.
Diverting, I have to share an awesome quote: ‘Bearing witness to the debauched transformation of his character (Guetta) is nothing less than tragic; akin to watching Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader. It’s made worse by his eventual success in (the) commercial art word, attesting to the fact that any talentless hack can become a populist artist so long as they have some knowledge in hype marketing’ (Anders Wotzke, cutprintreview). [Also found this cool link]
And therein lies the cautionary tale. Like all art, there’s a difference between good and bad street art. The best street art is more about the message than the art. ‘Fuck Bush’ isn’t an aesthetic; it’s an ethic. It operates best in relation to popular culture, mass media, advertising and intertexuality, as a form of provocative public art. And it is provocative to force and seize a voice in the public realm, a fastidiously regulated space. Exit Through the Gift Shop inadvertently (I suppose quite consciously through Banksy’s involvement) exposes the imminent fragility of this fledgling movement, to be inevitably subsumed into the establishment. In fact, I don’t recall seeing anything that so succinctly drew a distinction between popular culture and art. Which is a shame.