Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop is brilliant. It’s the best documentary I’ve ever seen about the art world. Some people have claimed that this film is a hoax (a “prankumentary”). Even if this is true, the film would still be the best documentary about the art world. It would be an example of what Picasso called “a lie that reveals the truth.”

The film tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant living in Los Angeles, who is obsessed with videotaping things. His cousin is a French street artist who calls himself Space Invader, through whom Guetta becomes interested in the shadowy world of street art, also known as graffiti. He videotapes his cousin making art on the streets, often at the risk of arrest by the police. (The film makes it clear that part of the attraction of street art is the element of risk, including the risk of injury.) Through Space Invader, Guetta gets to know other street artists, and he persuades them to also let him videotape them making their art. He films such people as Shepard Fairey, Buffmonster and Borf, surreptitiously making their art at night (and sometimes in broad daylight). Guetta eventually meets the elusive Banksy, the most famous figure in the street art scene. He videotapes Banksy and gradually earns his trust. Banksy is concerned about the growing acceptance of graffiti in the high-end art market. He urges Guetta to make a documentary out of his videos, so people will have a record of what street art was like in the early days. Guetta spends six months laboring on his film. When he shows it to Banksy, it turns out to be an incoherent mess. Not wanting to be too negative, Banksy suggests that Guetta try doing street art himself. Guetta returns to L.A., where he does as Banksy suggested. He styles himself, “Mr. Brainwash”. Soon, he wants to have his own gallery show like all the other street artists. Guetta is not much of an artist, but he turns out to be a genius at self-promotion. His heavily publicized opening is a huge hit. Collectors eagerly buy up his pieces, oblivious to the fact that they’re all derivative of other artists’ works.

Exit Through the Gift Shop touches upon several themes. Most strikingly, it’s about how hype shapes people’s perception of art. A clever promotional campaign turns an exhibit of mediocre art into a huge sensation. The film is also about how the art market has transformed the world of street art, which started out as an art of rebellion, but has now become part of the mainstream.

There are street artists here in Eugene, however their works are not appreciated by the Eugene Police. A few years ago, a couple of University of Oregon students were arrested in their dorm room for having done street art. The EPD are apparently unaware that in UO classes students are taught that graffiti is a legitimate art form, worthy of admiration.

From what I gather, the police in much of the rest of the country have the same attitude as the Eugene Police. Last year, the well-known Japanese pop artist, Yoshitomo Nara, was arrested in New York for doing graffiti. A newspaper article reports:

    Nara, 49, who lives and works in Tochigi Prefecture, was in New York for a solo exhibition of his work at the Marianne Boesky Gallery that runs Feb 28 through March 28. The online edition of Art in America magazine said Nara was caught tagging a graffiti portrait of two Japanese friends in the subway station and he was optimistic about his two days in lockup.

    It was ‘‘a nice experience in my life,’’ the artist was quoted as saying. He said the environment in which he found himself was like something in the movies.

Well, I suppose if you watch enough movies, eventually everything will seem like something in the movies.

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