In light of the serious theoretical debate surrounding Exit Through the Gift Shop, a “documentary” by English street art pioneer Banksy, I’d like to pose a multi-tiered question. In our highly academic engagement with the complexity of the Banksy ethos, aren’t we becoming the punch line of the very same joke from which we are trying so desperately to escape? Is this obsessive Holier-Than-Though atmosphere just a malignant side effect of the critic’s self-loathing? Are we not as bad as L.A.’s soulless faux-literati who parade their affectations of seriousness and insight (not to mention sincerity) or the art collector pricks who juxtapose Banksy’s work alongside minor Renoirs without batting an eye? Hugging our pretensions close, we have unknowingly become the targets of Banksy’s anti-expectation art.
Critics, in a vain attempt to deconstruct his film and simplify its elliptical dialectics, have made a lot of oblique assumptions about Banksy’s intentions with Exit. I’m going to attempt to be less crass but no more succinct: I am the victim of Exit Through the Gift Shop’s recondite gag, if it in fact exists at all, though I try so hard to escape the ideological pot holes other critics have fallen into on their way toward “figuring out” the film. As we look desperately for the code to decipher, the endlessly unfurling life à clef Banksy laughs all the way to the moral bank to deposit the sea of coins we’ve tossed into the infinite fountain of the occult, from which he draws not only his healthy moral salary but also the inspiration that has propelled him into the stratosphere of modern art.
As a film, Exit Through the Gift Shop is in turns affecting, insightful, and hilarious. It supersedes narrative constraints in a way that is pure Banksy: emotionally modern and structurally postmodern. Banksy, despite his capacity for vicious satire, is devotedly humanitarian at heart. His work is a seismic indicator of his dedication to the people often overlooked by sovereigns and tycoons. However, his tactics are reactionary. Street art itself is a reaction to the depravity of high art. Banksy’s hidden identity is a retaliation against celebrity, which itself is often a facade masking an ugly reality. Like the rest of his art, Exit is emotionally rich and psychologically complex. And the premise? Deliciously meta: a French ex-pat (Thierry Guetta) who never stops filming promises to create a documentary that is never truly made and in turn becomes the subject of a new documentary (accredited to a man without a face), which some propose (in a paranoid attempt not to be the tagline of an elaborate and possibly self-created Banksy hoax) is itself not a documentary at all.
For any person with intellectual hangups, this will be something to lose sleep over. Banksy, who has undergone a dramatic apotheosis at the hands of a desperate and self-degrading youth culture, is an artist for whom the immediacy of his medium has always been its most important aspect. It is the act of street art, not so much the culture that formed out of the connection between himself and other artists, that defines Banksy’s genius. As previously stated, his genuine love of and adoration for the people for whom his work serves as a reminder of life’s trials, tribulations, and simple pleasures is supported through his contempt for and subversion of fascism and abusive social institutions. This naturally stands in stark contrast to the supercilious seriousness of today’s youth who selfishly utilize anything and everything as a means of assimilating its “importance” into their own lives in the vain hope of finding the one thing that is going to validate their entire existence. If these holy fools ever managed to find the immortal something they want so desperately, they would undoubtedly strangle the life out of it.
As for the film’s proto-idiot savant protagonist, for whom the final product and/or the process by which that product is reached is always secondary to how it can utilized for self-serving desires, his self-constructed alter ego, Mr. Brainwash, gets it all wrong. During the film, he notes that “street art is about brainwash,” which the viewer interprets as Thierry rightly recognizing street art’s themes of anti-authoritarianism and contempt for political corruption. What the film reveals, however, is something altogether darker: that the “artist”-by-way-of-pathological-observer-gone-culture-debasing-charlatan (not to be confused with filmmaker, documentarian, or even authentic artist), who inarticulately expresses himself through bumbling non-sequiturs and confused metaphors, has accidentally discovered street art’s power of manipulation over not just wanton youth, but snarky bourgeoisie as well. While Mr. Brainwash rakes in thousands of dollars for derivative works of kitschy pop art pastiche, Banksy, Shephard Fairey, and others look on in horror and disbelief. The latent disciple of street art has unwittingly overthrown the masters.
If all this has you scratching your head, then consider yourself unequivocally united with the collective subconscious of all who have viewed this brilliant meta-docu-film. More than just an engaging social and psychological study, the film is also a eulogy for the lost innocence of not only street art but humankind as well. Effortlessly constructing a spellbinding tale of obsession, fate, identity, and illusion, Banksy has once again created a work that will undoubtedly turn commercially successful (and inevitably be co-opted by the “hip” who will further misconstrue and denigrate its diverse set of meanings), despite the great lengths he goes to show his derision for such a possibility. The film has already fallen prey to intense self-congratulating skepticism (which somehow passes for criticism…?), and there is no end in sight for that. Exit Through the Gift Shop’s impeccability is in its refusal to glorify the viewer’s intellect or their capacity to uncover the remote “truth” of a film. The self-congratulating experience of contemporary art house cinema and the stupefying effects of the typical Hollywood blockbuster prove, in Banksy’s paint stained hands, two sides of the same coin: one that is meant to make the viewer feel superior. Banksy instead places a vague shadow just outside our peripheral vision and dares us to guess what it is, where it comes from, and what it means for us. But unlike so many filmmakers, his wellbeing does not rely upon our interest. In fact, Banksy’s “take it or leave it” disposition may be the most mysteriously engaging aspect of his work. Like Plato’s allegorical cave, we struggle against the chains of our expectations all while philosopher king Banksy beckons us forth into the searing rays of enlightenment.
Banksy has always been an artist aware of the capacity for his art to disappear forever. This idea obviously chokes the creative subconscious of Mr. Brainwash, but if anything it arouses in Banksy the ability and knowledge to achieve the transcendental attitude by which he goes on surreptitiously making his art, in plain view of the public, largely for himself. Given all the intrigue, this may be the best time to ironically suggest that the film quietly told me what it was about in one brief snippet: when a passerby is asked about what she thinks of Banksy’s mutilated telephone booth piece, she replies in a sublimely Banksian tone, “someone doesn’t like BT telephone service.” In other words: analysis has its cost. So, shut up and watch the damn movie.