The reason the documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is special is because by examining a subculture of the art world, it manages to make observations about the state of art itself.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop”

At the Michigan
Paranoid Pictures

There is a moral struggle in every artist between keeping a true sense of purpose and meaning in mind while creating something new, and somehow using that newly created thing to pay the bills. The battle between the starving artist with a soul and the wealthy artist without one is as well documented as any conflict in human history.

But who knew the guys spray painting our trains and buildings in the dead of night faced the same moral dilemma that has plagued painters, writers, musicians and actors for centuries?

Who knew graffiti artists could “sell out”?

“Gift Shop” presents its audience with two classically different outlooks and opinions toward the practice and culture of “street art.” One belongs to Thierry Guetta, a financially successful street artist and failed filmmaker who is the film’s subject, and the other to Banksy — considered by many to be the Godfather of street art — and the producer/director of “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”

Banksy’s art career began as little more than pulling clever pranks on people on the streets of London. But after 9/11, he expanded his canvas of controversy from Los Angeles to as far away as the West Bank, and is revered today as the rabble-rousing, revolutionary poet of the street-art universe. He still remains anonymous (viewers don’t see his face, learn his real name or hear his real voice during the film) and while he takes credit for his work, he has always seemed to value the social effects and reactions to his thought-provoking work more than the financial rewards that come from selling it.

Thierry, on the other hand, whose street-art nickname is “Mr. Brainwash,” has made millions of dollars selling his art, despite having started his street-art career as a semi-serious hobby. He’s the idiot that one might point to if arguing that any idiot could become a street artist.

It’s their relationship that is so fascinating, and that lets the film function as something more than an informational documentary about a subculture. It’s a snapshot of what it’s like to be in any artistic profession, and the different forces at work behind the art we see and consume.

Despite the relative newness of street art, there is still a visible divide amongst those who call themselves street artists over what the goals of the form should be.

Should street art serve some instructional, critical, educational or moral purpose? Or should artists seek a paycheck? And, most importantly, is it possible to do both?

The film brilliantly substitutes street art for art in all its forms, demonstrating that the goals or purposes of any art are represented by neither Banksy nor “Mr. Brainwash” on their own, but by the two of them together, fighting.

The conflict between them as street artists mirrors the conflicted nature of the art itself. Viewers are forced to examine their own values to find a spot along the spectrum of what art’s greater function and moral code should be.

The film will leave many in a more educated but less permanent spot along that very spectrum. However, when it comes to the place of men like Thierry Guetta and Banksy along this artistic dilemma, they’ve both made sure that the writing’s on the wall.

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