Big ups to the Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which feels very Snarkmarketian to me. The movie unfolds in three distinct chapters, slowly developing an aesthetic and an argument, and finally posing a provocative question, or a few.
The first third of the film uses the lens of aspiring documentarian Thierry Guerra to give us a tour d’horizon of the universe of street art. We hear from a diverse cross-section of street artists from Shepard Fairey to a mosaic artist known as Space Invader to Banksy himself, while we’re watching footage of people taking to rooftops and subway stations to decorate the urban landscape.
Then we delve into the story of Guerra himself – this dude who channels his obsessive impulse to film everything in his life into a thorough record of the street art movement, compiling thousands of hours of footage of artists on the make. For such an ephemeral art form, this archiving is invaluable. Prominent artists cheerfully accommodate Guerra and his omnipresent camera, despite the heightened visibility it brings to activities that might not be entirely licit.
Guerra’s profile rises as the world he’s documenting starts to become more and more celebrated by the mainstream art community, which introduces tension: Street art is almost by definition a critique of mainstream consumer values. The movement rests on this fundamentally anti-consumerist premise of reclaiming private property for public expression. A mural on the side of a building defies our notions of commerce; the canvas can’t easily be carted off and sold, right? So what happens when the art does become property, bought and sold like any other commodity, auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars at Sotheby’s, pursued by collectors?
The answer: Mr. Brainwash.
Guerra, realizing that his payday is not going to come in the form of a smash hit documentary, decides he’s going to cash in on his work a different way. By now, of course, he’s become a devoted observer of the process by which street artists accrue mountains of hype, use industrial production techniques to replicate their work on a massive scale, and make their subversive and ubiquitous art a sort of viral marketing campaign for their brand. So he takes the logical next step of turning this fundamentally anti-capitalist movement into the ultimate post-industrial capitalist phenom: developing an alter ego he calls “Mr. Brainwash,” who slickly deploys the street art system in a scheme to mint millions overnight.
(Side note: I say “slickly deploys,” but one of the facts the documentary makes hilariously clear is that Guerra is anything but slick. He’s this endearingly inarticulate, possibly kind of dimwitted, organization-challenged geek, basically. In other words, there’s no Evil Genius at work here. Or is there? This is one of the more fun implicit questions the film poses.)
Reviewing the film, a lot of critics have raised the question of whether this is all a monstrous hoax engineered by Banksy. The events in the film – including Mr. Brainwash’s LA art opening – are of course genuine, documented occurrences. But to what extent might Banksy have set up the rules of the game and forced the outcome? Lots of fun speculation to be had there.
If the documentary ended up simply asking “What is art?” it would have been a let-down. (Don’t get me wrong. It gets asked. Warhol comes up more than once.) A more interesting question is, “What is Thierry Guerra’s / Mr. Brainwash’s artistic masterwork?” Is it the footage? The anti-anti-capitalist art opening? The documentary itself, and the worlds it contains?
By the way, Mr. Brainwash lives.