Sunday, January 2, 2011

It's All About Me and..."Exit Through the Gift Shop"

by Bansky

Is Mr. Brainwash the Stephen Colbert of the art world?

Exit Through the Gift Shop is purportedly a movie that set out to be a documentary about Banksy, the popular street artist, but turned into the story about Thierry Guetta who turns into Mr. Brainwash, a DIY film-maker who turns into a just-add-water-and-shake insta-artist. Or is he?

Shepard Fairey's most
famous work to date
Ok, let’s back up since I may have lost you already. Taken at face value, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about the exciting world of street artists as captured by a kooky French exile named Thierry Guetta who is obsessed with videotaping every moment of his life. When Guetta becomes enraptured by the aesthetic hijinks of street artists like Shepard Fairey, he naturally videotapes it all. Guetta captures the thrill of this guerilla art, where creators straddle the line of legality in an art form that, in one painted blast, both defaces and beautifies a space. Guetta scores his greatest coup when he gains access into the highly guarded inner circle of Banksy, the most elusive street artist of all. In an effort to get the possibly mentally unhinged videographer out of his hair, Bansky encourages Guetta to stage his own show. Much to the surprise and horror of Banksy and Fairey, Guetta – who assumes the name “Mr. Brainswash” and whose work steals liberally from Warhol, Banksy and Fairey – wows Los Angeles with a widely acclaimed art show. And gets rich in the process.
Work by "Mr. Brainwash"

As I watched the Exit Through the Gift Shop, I was chuckling away in dismay. Mr. Brainwash comments upon and makes a mockery of Banksy and Shephard Fairey, who comment upon and make a mockery of Warhol who commented upon and made a mockery of, say, Leonardo da Vinci and the entire art establishment. Though Banksy, Fairey, and Warhol all provide valuable commentary on mindless consumption of mental imagery and the power of advertising to alter our very beings, there is a statement being made in this movie about art as an establishment. This is a common theme for Bansky, who in one day snuck into deviously hang his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Museum.

And now we’re at the timeless question, What is art?

Graffiti artists force-feed us this question. They take normally private and exclusive art to the public streets, indeed the ugliest streets, often the spaces we would rather not see. In addition, the elements of illegality and danger only enliven the art form. You can’t help but to marvel at the fact that someone risked injury and arrest to bring me this artwork – this imbues the message with inherent meaning. Sometimes meaning that is not that is not there. (What is the message of Fairey’s “Obey” anyway?) Which then becomes a statement on mass brainwashing produced by the repeated images of advertising on each and every citizen (hello, Mr. Brainwash?)

You still with me? It’s complicated, right? The multitude of mental layers spurred on by Exit Through the Gift Shop takes the movie into the category of brilliant. People have been having animated conversations about art in Starbucks across America. There’s nothing bad about that! (Except for Starbucks, which I oppose on moral grounds.)

Ok, now here’s the thing. It is widely believed that Banksy, who directed the movie, may have created the whole thing as a prank. Yeah, I’m serious. They’re saying Thierry Guetta is a fictional character created to get a point across (in the same way that Stephen Colbert plays, well, Stephen Colbert.) With risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist (I do love a good conspiracy theory!), it’s worth noting that “guetta” means “watch” or “look out” in French. 

So perhaps the joke us on us all along. And the joke is especially is on the art world that embraces Mr. Brainwash and any poor schlub who bought his work. Or is it? Because if Mr. Brainwash is Banksy in one of his supreme pranks, then maybe it is art after all…

Personally, I think the movie is a hoax. I mean, Bansky directed the movie. If it were real, then that means that Bansky directed a movie that makes street artists look like hacks and chumps. Any man who risks his life to paint the wall along the West Bank in Israel does not consider himself to be a hack and a chump. Bansky and Fairey devote a good portion of their artistic endeavors toward pointing out our vulnerability to mass brainwashing through media and commercial sponsorship, as did Warhol before them. If Mr. Brainwash is Bansky’s creation, he’s played a splendid prank on large screens all around the world.

And that’s pretty flippin’ cool.

Or is it?

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