What makes art worthy of being called art? There are many people who debate this topic and have opinions about constitutes “real” art. Exit Through the Gift Shop explores the topic of modern street art and its growing popularity in the art world as it becomes more commercialized. Originally, the documentary was meant to be done by a man name Thierry Guetta, but at one point in the film, everyone realizes that Thierry is not a filmmaker after seeing his terrible movie, Life Remote Control. At that point, Banksy takes over and turns the camera around to make a film about Thierry. It follows the life of Thierry as he grows from being a man obsessed with filming everything for pure enjoyment to Mr. Brainwash, the popular street artist who exploits the modern, street art market.
The first half of the film depicts Thierry as a semi-successful business man who loves to carry his video camera with him everywhere. In doing so, he stumbles upon the underground world of street art through his cousin, Space Invader, who is popular for putting tiled Space Invader characters up all over various cities. We see Thierry become obsessed with filming street art as he tells various artists that he is making a documentary. He says in the film, “I wanted to make a movie about street art, so I wanted to get as much info as possible. It was like more than any drugs to anybody. It was obsession. I like to capture those people because I thought it was nice what they were doing. You know, they really believe it. You know, they really loved it.”
Thierry began following countless street artists around, taping every second. He eventually meets the infamous Banksy, who becomes the focus of much of his documentary. However, we eventually learn that he was not actually making a documentary. He was packing the unwatched film into boxes.
Although Thierry did not know it at the time, a lot of the film he captured was excellent. His footage takes us behind the scenes of an underground, illegal form of expression. The shots of Banksy are particularly compelling because Banksy really pushes the boundaries. He is not afraid to break the rules in order to make statements about politics and capitalism and society. He goes as far as painting the barrier wall in the West Bank, painting an entire elephant, and making a statement about Guantanamo Bay at Disneyland. At the same time, Banksy and many of the street artists are incredible private and anonymous. They prefer to let their art do the talking. They do it because they love it and want to make a statement, not because they want to make money.
However, Thierry was not the man to make a documentary about street art, as Banksy and the others found out. The second half of the movie follows Thierry as he begins putting down the camera and doing street art himself. After his horrid, failed movie, Banksy encourages Thierry to delve into the street art world while he takes over production of the documentary. Thierry takes this order to heart and begins showing his true colors as a complete nut. Many people in the film even even call him crazy. Without building up a reputation as a street artist, Thierry dubs himself Mr. Brainwash and decides to put on a gigantic art show. We see Theirry taking famous works of art or celebrity faces and distorting them in some way to make it “art.” The biggest problem though is that he does not do most of the art. He comes up with crazy ideas and dictates them to other people to accomplish. Meanwhile, he revels in the spotlight and loves the attention. He ends up making millions of dollars from an art show in which he had very little direct input.
Mr. Brainwash’s evolution shows us how an important, impactful art form can become completely bastardized. Our book mentions how documentaries can explore three sides of a story, your side, my side, and the truth. However, many documentaries must frame their subject matter in some way, and they end up focusing on a certain side of some debate. Banksy’s documentary focuses on the viewpoint of a genuine art form becoming distorted as capitalism takes over. Mr. Brainwash was in it for the money and the limelight. He was not interested in making a difference in some small way, like many of the other street artists. In the end, none of the other artists wanted anything to do with Thierry (even his cousin). As Banksy states in the film, “I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.”
It was later speculated that Exit Through the Gift Shop was another elaborate statement from Banksy. He created the character of Thierry Guetta/Mr. Brainwash. Thierry never actually existed, but Banksy wanted to make a film about street art becoming mainstream and loosing its value. Whether this is true or not, the documentary accomplishes what Banksy wanted. It shows us how something pure and unselfish can become easily distorted. The title,“Exit Through the Gift Shop,” sums up how art has become a commercialized spectacle.