Three things I learned about art (and the art world) from watching “Exit Through the Gift Shop”

  • **A blog post for an arts reviewing class that was fun to write and asked to be published on my real blog***

Banksy, who is known for spray painting images with strong social commentary on buildings but has never shown his face, finally stepped closer into the spotlight in 2010 when he made the documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” a movie that highlighted the street art world and most specifically, an artist who made his big break thanks to the open arms of other street artists. That artist goes by the name “Mr. Brainwash,” who is actually a Frenchman named Thierry Guetta. We find out rather quickly that Thierry stumbled into the street art world, luckily, and was, at first, just an admirer but later became an obsessed artist himself pulling inspiration from his friends for his own pieces.

The movie itself was fascinating for someone who doesn’t know anything about what it takes to breach the basic graffiti world into becoming an actual street artist. While the film gives a personal look into a “profession” that occurs at night with pseudonyms and close encounters with police, I also learned a few things that seem to apply to the general art world too.

Firstly, for most passionate streets artists (and I’m going to generalize here and say for most artists as well) the art they make is not about the money. Banksy explicitly notes this in the documentary, actually. For these artists, they started painting and putting up their art in the streets for fun, to express their creativity, to experience the adrenaline of “vandalizing” public property and to expand on their artistic abilities. Money and personal fame was never apart of it.

This is what makes the last third of the documentary so frustrating, for the artists and for the viewers as well. Thierry coins the name “Mr. Brainwash” and starts mass-printing his own designs, which really just look like exact pieces of his friends’ work with maybe a tweak in size, color or focus. He is worried more about the quantity of paintings rather than quality so he can sell as many as he can for hundreds-to-thousands of dollars.

This brought me to the second thing that I learned about the art world: a lot of it is just copying one another. To be fair, I should note that this idea is most common in the postmodern art world and, narrowing it down even more, in terms of pop art. After Andy Warhol made his prints featuring portraits of famous people and well-known labels in grocery stores, most pop artists followed closely in his footprints. Unfortunately, Thierry fell victim to this idea as well. Banksy, and other popular street artists like, Shepard Fairey, who is known for his “Obey” designs, and “Space Invader,” a French street artist, did not directly come out and say Mr. Brainwash was a bit of a phony, but there was a definite hint of acknowledging his copying towards the end of the film. In fact, Thierry’s pieces look scary similar to knock-off versions of Warhol prints and even some of Banksy’s work.

I think the street artists’ confusion and lack of judgment of Thierry brings me to the last thing I learned about the art world, which is: who is to say what is art? It’s a broad question — one that has been asked for years and has no right or wrong answer. (Plus, is a bit too deep to simplify in a short blog post). It is the essence of postmodernism and I think, if anything, is this documentary’s main point at the end. We are given these famous street artists whose designs started out as drawings or sprayings on the side of a building but then turned into renowned works of art that are sold for thousands of dollars and hang in people’s homes. But what makes it ok for an artist, like Mr. Brainwash, to essentially copy an exact artwork, like Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup print, and just blow it up and print dozens of copies and call it his own? Since the documentary, he has shaped himself to be a symbol of street art and has worked with other famous people, like Madonna on her album artwork. But if he is just essentially copying other artists for his own work, doesn’t that mean anyone could be an artist by doing the same?

There are, of course, exceptions all around to the generalizations that I’ve made about street art and art as a whole. All I know is if my career doesn’t work out, it seems I could always just print and modify someone else’s work and sell it for thousands of dollars. Maybe I’ll go by Miss Mindscrew?