Exit Through the Gift Shop: Art and PR
When B was here, he recommended we watch Banksy’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, a fascinating documentary about a man who has set out to make a documentary about Banksy. It traces the rise of Thierry (Terry as he is called) from street-artist side-kick to artist himself. At first, the street-artists who Terry meets are bemused by this slightly insane frenchman, who wants to film them as they put up their art. Terry becomes their friend and accomplice (even as he films), finally making his way to the most famous of street artists, Banksy. Terry he helps Banksy pull off a guerrilla art protest (against Guantanamo bay) at Disneyland, winning Banky’s trust. But Terry never produces the film he pretends to be making.
Rather, Terry asks an illustrator provide some drawings, from which Terry makes his own stencils and becomes a kind of street-artist himself.
Bansky suggests that Terry put on a small exhibition, and it’s here that things go haywire. Using Banksy’s endorsement, Terry launches himself as ‘MBW’, Mister Brain Wash. Rather than make art himself, he hires others to do it for him. The film climaxes with MBW’s opening show in LA, an enormous production where he sells around $1 million dollars worth of art.
It’s a wonderful piece, a snake-eating-its-tale kind of film in which the man who sets out to make a film has that film become about himself. I couldn’t t stop watching. The characters are larger than life, the street-art itself filled with the kind of modernist vitality that would have had Marshall Berman in raptures.
We begin by liking Terry, but by the end we are sickened by his exploitation of others, his half-baked teenage philosophies (‘everything is brainwashing’), and most of all by his lack of authenticity. When he has to give away 50 unique prints to those who attend his show first, he simply runs past them with a spray-can of paint. Apparently, the film symbolises the co-option of street-art into the commercial mainstream, the moment of sell-out.
It’s not entirely clear that the film is above board. Several commentators have challenged this narrative. For them, the film is one more example of Banksy’s guerilla art, an elaborate set-up in which Banksy created MBW.
They point, for example, towards the fact that much of MBW’s art – obvious recyclings of Warhol’s pop art – looks like a little too much like Banksy’s.
If this is the case, the film is fascinating in another way. It becomes a delightful mockumentary.
Either way, the questions the film engages with exist. MBW’s success is primarily one of PR and marketing. He had Banksy’s endorsement, which allowed him to get into newspapers. His self-presentation essentially dupes the media and the general public. Success is a matter not of producing ‘quality’, or valuable art. Rather, it is determined by a market which is able to be manipulated. A big name is more important than anything else.
Of course, along with the delightfulness of the film, the rambunctious humour, we can’t avoid the depressing nature of its message. If the postmodern means anything, it means this: the victory of PR, image, senseless recycling, reified reproduction, over anything else.
For any artist, for a novelist like myself, this is a sobering vision of the world. I – for example – have always found self-promotion somewhat distasteful. Perhaps I’m too ‘Australian’ in this, exhibiting out reticence to talk ourselves up, our ‘tall-poppy syndrome.’ With Unwrapped Sky set to be released next year, I’ve already had a number of people suggest I learn to ‘promote’ myself properly.
One of the reasons I balk at the prospect is the way that self-promotion bourgoisefies the artist, some thing that Guy Rundle discussed in a recent piece on crowdfunding. Artists I know who are into self-promotion talk about their ‘brand’. The notion horrifies me. I am not a brand.
And yet, I want my novel to sell. I need to sell it.
This, it seems to me, is the cul-de-sac the contemporary artist finds themselves in. It’s one which an artist cannot escape, cannot avoid, as an individual. It’s also one which doesn’t seem likely to be transcended very soon. So it is a cul-de-sac in which one wants to go forward but cannot. For the moment, all we can do is play in the alleyway as it is.
MBR understood this. Or Banksy did.