Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Irony, Cash and Parody: Analyzing Exit Through the Gift Shop

"When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires." - Banksy

Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film directed by anonymous street artist Banksy, tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a transplanted Frenchman in Los Angeles and his fascination with street art, meeting other street artists and eventually becoming an art star himself.

A number of issues come up throughout the film – problems of the art market, problems of appropriation and distinguishing “art” and “graffiti”. Bansky has been making bank with his art, although it may have been unintentional. This is not the first time this has happened in the art world and it will not be the last. In this paper, I will discuss a number of examples relating to these issues and give art historical context where appropriate.

There is question as to whether or not the film is authentic. Makers and stars of the film including artist Shepard Fairey swear it is, a reviewer for the New York Times dubbed it a potential “prankumentary”, and famed critic Roger Ebert felt the possibility of it being a hoax made it even more interesting.

The film opens up with a parody logo of the Paramount Pictures snow covered mountain top, sprayed with bullets and “Paranoid” put in place of “Paramount”. This kind of appropriation/subvertising activist combination sets the tone for the themes in the entire documentary.

Putting us on?

Most of the statements attributed to Banksy are highly critical of modern art. In the film, he talks about “most normal art” being oil on canvas and sculpture, and street art goes against that tradition. While it does of course go beyond that tradition and particularly the tradition of formally taught artists, Banksy seems oblivious to or unwilling to acknowledge huge strides in the art world with artists who changed the face of what art was and ought to be- artists like Marcel Duchamp, who said anything could be art and Gilbert and George who proclaimed themselves living sculptures. So, it is difficult to know if Banksy knows about these art historical traditions, or if he is parroting the line that so many people believe – modern art is bogus and market prices obscure it, making it even more so.

Similarities Between Other Artists

Because the Exit Through the Gift Shop deals with street art, it is interesting to note that art collector Wendy Asher, while showing off her collection, admitted on camera to not liking Keith Haring. This is ironic, because Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were street artists before becoming art world darlings. Asher appreciates Banksy’s work, but doesn’t seem to acknowledge that his fame might not have been as likely if it weren’t for artists like Haring coming before him and warming up the art crowd.

Shepard Fairey, in talking about his ubiquitous Andre the Giant wheatpaste posters and stickers explained that the more people see the stickers, the more people ask each other, and the more it “gains real power from perceived power.” This is slightly the opposite concept of what Andy Warhol tried to do with his repetitive imagery, and ironically close to what advertising posits to do, which was repeat images until they lost their meaning. Since Fairey does own the Obey fashion line (which I must admit I’m a big fan of), it seems fitting that there is irony in this department.

The Banksy show “Barely Legal” brought up other art world references. Banksy said the piece de resistance, the painted elephant in the room, turned the show into an event. I immediately thought of so-called “New York slacker artist” Sean Landers and some early videos he did using a chimpanzee to make portraits. The imposition of the elephant in the room is also like a less intellectual version of Martin Creed’s Work No 850, a conceptual installation which featured runners sprinting through Tate Britain. Creed said, “I thought, ‘Why do you have to look at paintings for a long time? Why not look for a second?’…Sometimes when you go around museums you feel it is quite a laborious task…It is not for me to say what it is about. This is something to look at, just like a painting.” 1

Mr. Brainwash’s art work appears to have borrowed from a number of sources aside from the initial aspirations of being like Banksy and Fairey. His large spray Campbell’s soup can borrows from Andy Warhol, of course, but also from Claes Oldenberg and his tendency to blow up everyday items like cakes and cherry spoons. Mr. Brainwash’s monster made of TV’s takes a page from Korean media artist Nam June Paik, and his “PUNK” work was appropriated from Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” sculpture and painting, which was also appropriated by the Canadian collective General Idea as “AIDS”.

Even some of the statements Banksy made recall statements made by other artists. Reacting to Mr. Brainwash’s show, Banksy said, “I always used to encourage anyone I knew to make art – I don’t really do that so much anymore.” This speaks directly to Joseph Beuys’s feeling that everyone was an artist.

Unintentional Sellers

Harlem artist David Hammons tried to move away from the art market with unconventional methods like attempting to sell snowballs on a New York City sidewalk. Hammons said, “The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize, not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?...I’ll play with the street audience. That audience is much more human, and their opinion is from the heart. They don’t have any reason to play games.” 2 Earth work artists like Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer traveled to the great yonder producing works in hard-to-find locations far away from urban gallery settings, often in desolate southwestern U.S deserts. The art market will find a way to work around these things and sell photos of the work, which fetch high prices. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s the way things are, and a good way of cataloging impressive work of the past century. Besides, when critiquing art from any lens it is important to separate the “worth” of the art (measured in psychological, emotional, pragmatic or social terms) from the worth of the art at auction. Prices are irrelevant when considering the aesthetics of work, they have to be, just as they have to be when considering the merit of a novel because – best selling or not, some novels have changed the landscape of literature, and some haven’t, and the latter may be more likely to get put on Oprah’s reading list.

Film Elements

One scene in the film that I found particularly telling was a shot of a Banksy work being sold at auction in a lot that also contained work by Takashi Murakami (called the Japanese Andy Warhol by some) and a large Damien Hirst spot painting, one in a series famously done by assistants of his. Warhol had a factory, Hirst, Jeff Koons and a plethora of other artists have assistants, and Banksy has a collective. They’re not as different as you may think.

When Banksy realized the title of his film was also the name of a West London cover band, he decided to make an unusual amends – after several email conversations with the band’s drummer Simon Duncan, who agreed to change the band’s name to “Brace Yourself,” Banksy sent him an original piece featuring the grim reaper in a bumper car. The car had “Brace Yourself” scrawled on the front and the work was insured for at least 200,000 British Pounds. 3 Since Banksy did not know beforehand about the group, there is the question of why he chose the name in the first place. A number of museums have gift shop exits, or at least gift shops adjacent to the exit. Most amusement parks have gift shop exits and patrons are told to brace themselves before a powerful ride. Some museum patrons have been told the same, as when disclaimers go up warning visitors of potentially objectionable material in the gallery. And while visitors have a choice whether to enter a gallery or a specific wing of a museum, street art creates an imposition that is hard to move away from, it’s saving grace from being deemed aesthetically dictatorial is that it is illegal, and thus, ephemeral For this reason, I question Banksy’s feeling about his art never having been about hype and money. Maybe the money part isn’t all that important to him, but the hype is predictable considering how ubiquitous and socio-politically charged his art is.

Theorist Pierre Levy discusses that the “art in an age of collective intelligence functions as a cultural attractor, drawing together like-minded individuals to form new knowledge communities.”4 All of the borrowing from past artists serves as a form of collective artistic intelligence. Banksy has been a huge cultural attractor, particularly in attracting people who would ordinarily want nothing to do with the art world. While outsider art existed before Banksy, Banksy is a cult phenomenon who somehow manages to live in the art market world as well as the street activist world.

There is a lot of the bad faith in the story, most of which revolves around Mr. Brainwash. Is Thierry Guetta actually Mr. Brainwash? Did he create this persona because he had a legitimate interest in making art or did he do it because he thought he could make a quick buck? Further, given all the similarities between Guetta’s work and the work of other artists, including Banksy and Fairey, did Guetta model his work directly in the spirit of these artists or is it a coincidence? These questions might never be answered, and that’s probably for the better, it wouldn't be as fun a documentary and story if we had the cheat codes right in front of us.

Works Cited

1. Alberge, Dalya. Martin Creed installation in Tate Britain's Duveen Galleries will run and run. 1 July 2008. The Sunday Times UK. <>

2. Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940. London: Lawrence King Publishing Ltd., 2011. Print.

3. Thorpe, Vanessa. What's in a name? For Simon Duncan's band, a £200,000 Banksy... 25. April. 2010. The Observer <>

4. Jenkins, Henry. Transmedia Storytelling 101. 22. March. 2007. The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins. <>

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I love to read about linguistics, behavioral economics, theory and philosophy. I listen to music some might call outdated, write satirical and high testosterone plays, consume too much caffeine and ruthlessly defend modern and contemporary art.