REVIEW: Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop

“Is this the line for the mooovie?” I heard a mystified woman ask as she applied herself to the back end of a line that had advanced from the basement to the top of the stairs.

The line at Sunshine Theater
Snaking Through the entire downstairs, the Banksy crowd

We were at the Sunshine theater to see Banksy’s Exit Throught the Gift Shop, a documentary, by label, about street art and an unlikely new star, Mr. Brainwash.

Something like this could have been expected in the UK, where folks care about art and are intimately familiar with Banksy’s beginnings as street vandal in Bristol. But here? Even in New York’s lower east side, we hadn’t expected to see a crowd like this.

It turns out the movie was worth our wait. I think it was even GEEENYUS, or something like that.

When you talk about self consciousness in art, before pop, let’s say, then who is it you refer to? Always? That’s a quiz.

The answer is, of course, Duchamp. Canon-based art discussions always pin the beginning of postmodern navel gazing on Mr. Duchamp, usually coupled with a reverie about “firsts” and “blurring boundaries” and stealth talk about tearing down the white wall, or defying the authority of institutions.

And street art, well, it has always been kind of schizo, no? Am I pop? Am I dada? Am I black jackets and spray cans or am I a Warhol wanna-be with stencils and pop-culture references? Street art in the galleries? That’s even more confusing: am I a roof-scaling anarchist or — um– Okay, I”m going to go for Warhol again: Am I Andy Warhol?

The final question for the street artist who breaks INTO the white cube, “Is it okay to make some money now?” Having made some money, is it okay to make more? And what about more?

Exit Through the Gift Shop is, I think, Banksy’s attempt to address (not answer, mind you) those questions.

The title of the movie, if you ask me, is a give-away. Nowhere in the movie is the title ever referred to. How does the title make any sense unless one assumes, as I insist on doing, that the documentary is a vehicle to make a dollar. An ironic dollar.

Before the movie, came some promo in the form of a give-away: free posters to the audience members with winning ticket numbers. Unabashed marketing has preceded the release of this movie, from the not so secret “secret” premier at the Sundance Film Festival, to the sale of limited edition TimeOut cover prints, to the barrage of media stories the day before the opening. What else is this besides a big center finger to all the purists and art-for-arts sake poseurs who have been ragging on poor Banksy ever since his Bristol malfeasance had become a series of protected landmarks?

Oh ye of little faith. The movie is actually a self-interrogation of sorts. Mr. BrainWash, the purported subject of this “documentary,”  is, fabricated or not, a Frankenstein creation, born of the street art movement. And Mr. Brainwash’s truly terrible work is a perfect summary of all that the earnest art world has accused the successful street artist of: shallow pop reference, dumb repetition, coy rebellion, adolescent humor: a twee concoction of collage and poster paint posing as important art.

If Mr. Brainwash did not exist, surely Banksy would have had to create him.

Anyone who wonders for very long about the extent of the fiction involved in this film, is definitely missing the point— though, there ARE many (MANY!) clues that the whole thing is contrived: the over-the-top voice-over narrative, the corny pre-packaged documentary timeline. And then there’s the really too, too conveniently distanced and rather well-shot scenes with the Mr. Brainwash/Theirry character himself — so clown-perfect with his permanently painted fingers, his Harold Lloyd antics while sporting a broken foot, and that never removed Buster Keaton-ish hat. And what of those video shots of Banksy? Who, having remained anonymous for so long, would deliberately allow those bloat-bellied, plumber’s butt shots of themselves to be seen. Ever? Much less through their own editing.

But setting aside all of these give-aways, even GRANTING that Guetta is a gift from the gods of irony, Banksy’s acknowledgement of him, his careful editing of the story, and the self (and artworld) condemning dialog he chooses to include, all open the audience up to a new view of what has happened to street art, to pop art, and to our abilities to think about art in general.

The word sucker comes up, the question about what’s a joke, who’s a joke, and who’s joking, all come up. Money is a constant bold, unbridled theme.

Let me ask you, do we exit through the gift shop?

See my related story with fun links:

Ce N’est Pas Un Banksy

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2 Comments

  1. palmtree says:

    I don’t really get this theory that Mr Brainwash is Banksys joke on the artworld, because Banksys work is just as stupid as Brainwashes. Both artists are a joke on everyone who takes their mild graphic design jokes to be any kind of worthwhile art.

  2. Hi! Just wanna say I like your posting on “Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop”
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