Review of Exit Through the Gift Shop written & directed by Bansky
Rating *** 1/2
What is it that makes one work of art worth thousands of dollars and another similar work of art worth almost nothing? That is a question that has been addressed on this site a number of times. First there was the excellent documentary My Kid Could Paint That, which tells the story of four year old Marla Olmstead and her paintings which racked up huge numbers. Then there was Who the &*^% is Jackson Pollock, about the discovery of a painting believed to be an original Jackson Pollock. You could also include the documentary Catfish, a story that started with the failed attempts of artist Angela Wesselman-Pierce to gain recognition for her artwork.
And now we can add this film to the list. This documentary was nominated for an Oscar last year. It’s a facinating story on a number of levels. But I keep coming back to the theme of art versus worth.
It takes a while for this film to get around to what I consider the most important theme, and that’s why I didn’t give it a higher rating. In my mind, the idea that a guy who is not an artist, who basically has other people create his work for him, using mostly Photoshop, who then manages to sell that artwork for over a million dollars in one take, that is the story I would have told. Instead, three quarters of the film is about street art (or grafitti depending on who you’re talking to) and the artisits behind the work. Of course it’s also about Thierry Guetta, a wannabe filmmaker and artist.
Thierry is someone obsessed with filming every aspect of his life. He is also obsessed with documenting street artists and their creations. He tells them he wants to film them for a documentary he is working on. The truth, however, is that Thierry really isn’t a filmmaker. He just likes to shoot film. He has no intention, desire, or the skills to turn that process into a documentary. Eventually the subjects of his filming pressure him to deliver something they can see. What he delivers is an undecipherable mess.
One of the main subjects of the film, Bansky, decides to take on the project himself using the hours of footage shot by Thierry. Bansky suggests to Thierry that he should try creating his own street art. And thus begins an unbelievavbe transformation from failed filmmaker to overnight art sensation.
How he manages to pull it all off is the most interesting aspect of this film. To give you an idea, here’s how the process works. Thierry takes an iconic image of someone like Madona or Elvis Pressley, then modifies (or I should say has other people modify) that image in riduculous ways with Photoshop. He then blows that image up, frames it, and then sells it for a completely arbitrary number like say $35,000. He calls himself MBW. So now we have a new artist who goes by MBW selling Photoshop images for riduculous amounts. Forget the fact that MBW stands for Mr. Brainwash (yeah, someone is being brainwashed). Forget the fact that he doesn’t actually do the work. Forget the fact that there are people who praise its originalliy and who then shell out these ridiculous sums. It just goes to show how easy it is to turn junk into treasure when it comes to art. All you have to do is convince one person that you’re a genius and everyone else will fall in line.
One thing that wasn’t covered at all in this film is the fact that Thierry often uses copyrighted images for his own creations. If I take an image of Elvis and add a toy gun to the image, it’s not exactly legal to do that without compensating the original artist or the celebrity whose image you’re ripping off. I don’t know how the guy is not facing millions in copyright infringement lawsuits. And here’s the other thing. As I said, Thierry doesn’t actually do the work. He is an idea man. He has other people do the Photoshop work. So Thierry gets an idea to put a toy gun in an Elvis picture. He pays someone a couple hundred dollars to Photoshop in the toy gun. He then puts his MBW signatuture on it and sells it for $12,000.
You can’t make this stuff up.