Sean K. Cureton

Image as Artist as Image

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on December 10, 2014 at 3:55 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
Directed by Banksy
Netflix Rating: Loved It

At the heart of the enigmatic graphic and street artist Banksy’s feature length documentary film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is the aura of artistic identity, the question of what constitutes art, and the economics and commerce of images, both literal and figurative. Though Banksy never shows his face, identifies himself explicitly, or defends as fact any of the events and persons that are presented indisputably on film as occurring and existing within the real world, there is a culpability on the part of the viewer in watching the film that serves to validate and identify the art and artists presented in the film as such, implicating both artist and spectator in the act of establishing the cult of celebrity conjured up by the images put on display, our reaction towards a given object more important than the identification of the object itself. In this way, the cult of celebrity is examined with a minuteness that proves to be disturbingly prescient, as the status of the celebrity in the public eye is as much a validation of ourselves as spectators as it is a an act of sublimating another individual, their image a reflection of our own image of the world and our place within it in relation to them. The character of Thierry Guetta, or “Mr. Brainwash,” is a singular one, as he casts a shadow over the entire production, his transition from spectator to object one that is meant to mirror the viewer’s, his validation as veritable street artist and point of focus as tenuous as anybody else’s in the same position, entirely dependent upon how he chooses to project his own image in relation to those around him. Banksy’s Oscar nominated feature film is thusly one of the most fascinating indictments of the cult of celebrity and the artist, as Banksy peels away at the very things that make us commend one object as art while simultaneously denigrating another individual’s ambition as trash, questioning the validity of an aesthetic institution of personal identification with a seemingly cosmic significance, revealing the entire world for the stage of ego-centric theatre that we all secretly know it to be, one man’s trash another man’s treasure.

One of the largest objects of fascination in Banksy’s film is obviously the director, or directors, himself, or their selves, and how we as spectators are meant to identify them in relation to the art that they present for our visual consumption. The name Banksy comes preloaded with a plethora of preconceptions about art and the artist, for better or worse, and the fact that Banksy implements the very opaqueness of his own self-image into the film is part of what makes the film so fascinating, as he more or less admits to the fallacies of the very aura that surrounds and legitimizes his work as art, as opposed to mere tomfoolery, or anarchistic playacting. The fact that Banksy becomes the object of focus for Thierry “Mr. Brainwash” Guetta as the film unfolds is suitably fitting, as the reversal of roles that Banksy and Thierry engage in gets at the sort of deconstruction of self-image that Banksy’s film so beautifully encapsulates, working towards a definition of the mentality behind a celebrity driven culture that has more to do with the fabrication of art as self that defines the ego-centrism of our image polluted, socially conscious culture, one in which how we look and present ourselves being more important than the content of our thoughts, or the implications of our actions. As Thierry meanders his way through the world of street artists throughout the film, flirting with the idea of becoming a filmmaker, and ultimately succumbing to the allure of the images that he finds so fascinating, veritably becoming an image himself, the film takes on a stance of artificiality that gets at the very spectral quality of art, indefinable but palpably real and present in the eye of the beholder. The fact that Thierry is able to manipulate his way into the art scene by the film’s end is as astounding as it is destabilizing, as it reveals the in-authenticity of what we take to be authentic, the artist as much a part of the image as the image itself, each a reflection of the spectator’s own assumptions and self-image, an amplification of our shared, culturally selfish isolationism.

Which brings the entire discussion on art and the artist back to the centralizing discussion surrounding the object and the spectator, each entirely dependent on the other in terms of validation and identification. In the case of Banksy, his aura as artist is entirely dependent on the image that he presents to the world, and how that world in turn chooses to see that image in relation to themselves. Through the act of projecting back an image of them self looking at the image of Banksy, the spectator negotiates an agreement on what constitutes art and the artist, the object of fascination being as tenuous and malleable as the needs and desires of the voyeur, purveyor, and cultural tastemaker, our collective judgments on the respective merits of Banksy’s work final in terms of how his image may then be represented to the world. Therefore, the fact that Banksy has been labeled as the director of the film is itself an exercise in voyeuristic idealism and objective projection of culturally established labels, Thierry “Mr. Brainwash” Guetta becoming more fascinating to the point of fabrication and objectification, Banksy becoming spectator to an image more alluring and malleable than his own. If Thierry is in fact an artist at the conclusion of the film, then what does that make Banksy, and more importantly, where does it leave the viewer, spectator or object in the fabrication of celebrity that is “Mr. Brainwash?”

Ultimately, the logic behind Exit Through the Gift Shop’s engagement with the cult of celebrity is cyclical, simultaneously demystifying the art and the artist, while shrouding the distinction between the object and its spectator, thereby re-establishing the ethereal mysticism attributed to both, begging the initial question again and again. Whether there is a clear definition of what constitutes art is irrelevant, as the artist must first be present, and in order for an artist to be present his work must be labeled as the work of an artist by an audience made up of spectators as dependent upon the label of artist themselves, the eye of the cult of celebrity forever staring back it itself in a mirror of aesthetic self-interpretation and cultural ambiguity. By the end of Banksy’s film, the image of the artist is just as opaque and indescribable as ever, with Thierry a self-established celebrity and cultural icon in his own right, the cultural label that he self-applies to himself as object proven to be as alluring as anything else that we might constitute as being art, as we as spectators validate any object as such through the power attributed to the attention of our gaze. In viewing the film as a documentary, we collectively assert the truth inherent in such a label through providing said descriptive definition, imbuing Banksy’s film with the authority of fact, and validating his argument as worthy of our critical and voyeuristic attention, sublimating his work as art once again. In other words, we are all complicit members in the cult of celebrity, granting definition where there is none, establishing a sense of self that is as existentially ridiculous as the aura of artistic identity.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies On Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

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