‘Everything you are about to see is true, especially the bit where we all lie’ says Banksy of his debut film, Exit through the Gift Shop. (Sundance, 2010)
In this film, Banksy makes a joke out of the art world, just as the art world has made a joke of art. Underneath the jest, however, is a serious and important message.
Exit is the story of the industry’s subjugation of art. It is a cautionary tale about art, culture and capitalism. The villain of this tale is the ‘Culture Industry’; a factory, of sorts, that takes art and the avant garde, strips it of its subversive content, and churns out ‘pastiche’, the mere image of the avant garde. As this image is disseminated through the many structures of the Culture Industry (film) art is steadily replaced with the image (the brand) and after a certain period of time, we, the public/consumer, can scarcely tell the difference between the imitation and the real thing. Banksy, through this film, revolts against the Culture Industry, by graffiting the medium that originally subjugated it. He makes apparent the power that industry images have over people; undermines the authority of the medium and the industry’s players; and reveals how art has been transformed into pastiche, ripe for consumption. In doing so he reveals the way we, the audience, have been manipulated by the Culture Industry and urged into consumerist passivity. The moral, don’t believe what you see and hear, don’t believe the hype, think for yourself!
Exit uses the Culture Industry’s ubiquitous images in order to undermine its perceived power. From the first moment, Banksy uses Street Art’s techniques of subversion to highlight the way images operate in culture. Exit opens, as almost all films do, with the logo of its production company, Paranoid Pictures. Paranoid Pictures, however, is not a production company; it is a Banksy stencil (available for purchase at Guy Hepner Gallery). Banksy has appropriated the Paramount Pictures logo; retaining the iconic snow capped mountain, replacing the halo of stars with bullet holes. It is only when the bullets begin to tear through the image that we become aware of the difference; the distinction between the two is not noticed at first glance. In that moment of revelation, the power of the Culture Industry’s images becomes apparent. We, the audience, suddenly realise how readily we accept—rather than question–the images depicted on screen. This opening sets the tone for the remainder of the film; encouraging the audience to question rather than accept what the film ‘tells’ them.
The power of the Culture Industry lies in its perceived authority and thus holds the power to define the avant garde and strip it of any subversive power. Exit constitutes Banksy’s attempt to resist documentation, which is ‘the worst thing that can happen to an avant garde’. He turns the camera away from himself (to the disappointment of the audience) and onto the documentarian, Thierry Guetta; an eccentric Frenchman who accidently ‘falls into the biggest countercultural movement since punk’. He is obsessed with filming the world around and for this reason resolves to make a documentary about Street Art –with little thought of what it would mean to document an art that is by nature, fleeting, and reliant on the invisibility of the artist. Guetta is shown to be a clumsy half-wit who does not understand the art he is documenting. This is made apparent by his attempt to describe Banksy:
He was incredible, he was cool, he was…, he was…eh, he was, human, he was…, he was…, he was…eh, he is…, he is, you know, he is really like, eh, what he represent, you know. I think he is really like, eh, I think he is really like eh…I really liked him!
This point is furthered by Guetta’s ‘documentary’, Life Remote Control:
An hour and a half of unwatchable, nightmare, trailers. [It is] essentially like someone with a short attention span with a remote control, flicking through a cable box of nine hundred channels…everything about it was, well, ‘shit’. (Banksy)
It was at that point that I realised maybe Thierry wasn’t actually a filmmaker and was maybe just someone with mental problems who happened to have camera…So I though maybe I should have a go, I mean I don’t know how to make a film, but that didn’t seem to stop Thierry, so…
Through the example of Guetta, Banksy shows how the Culture Industry makes a joke out of art and how those that document and define a movement are generally ‘half wits’ who do not understand the art they are documenting, nor the implications of the very act of documenting. This destruction of art, by the industry, is contrasted with Banksy, an artist who creates art that speaks for itself. Though this film, Banksy undermines the industry and the ‘information’ it espouses, in so doing, he re-empowers Street Art and breaks the spell the Culture Industry has cast.
Banksy shows the art world to be a sham, through the character of Guetta, who, through the tools of marketing and advertising, is transformed overnight from ‘humble shopkeeper’ to ‘art-world sensation’. In the beginning of the film, Guetta is introduced to audience as: ‘the owner of a vintage clothing store in the city’s most bohemian shopping district; he made a good living selling wears to L.A.’s more fashion conscious citizens’. Guetta explains:
at that time I used to buy old adidas and old things, things you couldn’t find here…and when the sewing was different, I call it ‘designer’, and I put the price up, I say ‘four hundred dollars’. So from fifty dollars I could sometimes make, five thousand dollars.
Guetta and his store are metaphor for the art world, which routinely picks up a trash, calls it art and hikes up the prices. Guetta takes this same approach when he reinvents himself as ‘Mr Brainwash’ – artist extraordinaire. With his Warhol-esque factory Guetta recycles virtually every avant garde since POP, producing hundreds of meaningless pastiches. Irrespective of the quality of his work, Guetta’s debut show Life is Beautiful was, in industry terms, a great success: ‘the ultimate validation was measured in dollars and cents, by the end of his opening week Thierry would sell over a million dollars of art’. Guetta’s ‘success’, as we are shown in the film, was entirely the result of the Culture Industry’s publicity machines — after hearing about the show in publications such as LA Weekly, over two thousand people lined up at the gallery door on the day of the opening. The public are shown to be completely ignorant of the influence of publicity and are unaware that their interpretation of the work is merely a recycled press release; where Banksy notes that Guetta’s art ’looks like every one else’s’, a visitor describes Guetta’s works as ‘a mixture of street art and POP, together, really interesting stuff, very modern, no one has really done it the way he’s done it’. This film shows how the Culture Industry makes consumers out of us all. The customers of Guetta’s store—‘typical arty types’—are shown to be no different to the philistines who praise the work of Mr Brainwash. If the Culture Industry were a puppet show, in this film, Banksy reveals the strings. He shows how we, the public, after of decades manipulation, can no longer distinguish between art and pastiche. In doing so Banksy subverts the Culture Industry, clueing us up to ‘the culture of mass deception’.
Banksy turns the tables on the Culture Industry to make the following point: don’t believe the hype, don’t believe what they tell you, don’t even believe what I tell you, look at what you see and think for yourself!
Adorno, T. W. & Max Horkheimer. ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1947. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002.
Droney, Damien. ‘The Business of “Getting Up”: Street Art and Marketing in Los Angeles’. Visual Anthropology. 23: 2, March, 2010.
Huyssen, Andreas. ‘Back to the Future’. In the Spirit of Fluxus. Minneapolis: Walker Art Centre, 1993.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.