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Movie Debate: Exit Through the Gift Shop

by Eric Melin on February 16, 2011

in Print Reviews

Last week, I posted this link on Facebook, describing the Academy Awards’ position on whether to let a monkey-masked man accept an Oscar statue, should he win:

About Banksy: “It would not be dignified for the Academy to have somebody come up wearing a monkey’s head.”
Oscars Want Elusive Banksy to Stay Out of Sight | TheWrap

It set off a really interesting debate about Banksy’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” It also helped remind me that I caught up with the movie late last year and never wrote a proper full-length review of it. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” was one of 2010’s best, and it ended up at number four on my list of best movies of the year. So here’s my opportunity!

Anyway, what follows is a debate between myself, Scene-Stealers contributor and artist Michael Bird and Commercial Artisan co-chair Jon Sholly. This discussion goes beyond the merits of the film and goes into what it may mean to the art community itself. It starts with a couple comments from some other friends, whose last names have been removed to protect their privacy. Enjoy:

Send Thierry Guetta. I bet he shows still.

I think Banksy is a franchise, and its run by Mr.Brainwash. Exit is a total fraud, and kinda made me a little angry that I watched the whole thing. It used so much recycled footage from other graffiti docs.

Michael Bird
Banksy is one of the few from that generation that actually has the chops to be a fine artist. Most of the rest of them are useless, with dick and fart jokes masquerading as social commentary (Shepard Fairey is graphic designer/illustrator …at best). I absolutely felt bait-and-switched because I knew the work of the various players before I went in thinking I was getting a doc on Banksy. I got his one-note-joke, alter-ego instead. Great. I don’t think its the best doc of the year. I don’t even think it is a good doc. Its a prank. And if those qualify as docs now, I think “Jackass 3D” was better.

Michael: word! Totally agree!

banksy-exit-through-the-gift-shop-truck-theaterEric Melin
it’s not just a prank. he did with film exactly what he does with street art: take the form of something and alter it to make a different point. it IS a great doc because it questions the very nature of its ‘truth,’ and by that nature, any notions of truth in documentary filmmaking. who cares if it recycled footage from other graffiti docs? that’s only part of what it was about. the movie challenges the notion of what it means to be an artist in the first place. those tricky questions that lie in the chasm between art and commerce are raised naturally through the progression of the narrative, whether that narrative is partially fabricated or not. fascinating stuff–the best doc of the year, hands down!

Michael Bird
‎”the movie challenges the notion of what it means to be an artist in the first place.” How does it do this? Or does it challenge whether an audience recognizes what an artist looks like? For my view of it, I get that he thought he was doing something clever there, turning reportage into prank into rhetoric. I just didn’t learn anything new from him doing that. I kept looking for a larger point and I couldn’t find one. That art exists because of witless benefactors is not new. Artists acknowledge that when we make work, it is unlikely that others will understand what we get from making it, and it isn’t necessary (well, some us feel that way — some still write editorials into their work). His master stroke here is that he was able to trick several gullible, but well-meaning benefactors into buying mass produced artwork because of hype? Art has always been sold on hype. My mom knows this. The best that comes out of this is that people think twice before they buy a piece of art, lest it be a prank?

Michael Bird
By the way, I liked this movie more when it was called “60 Minutes’ report on Thomas Kinkade.”

Jon Sholly
Well I think the movie succeeds because it shows that a prank can be art. That an artist can exist solely as a brand instead of an individual. Value judgments aside, this movie actually illustrates a “challenge to the notion of what it means to be an artist.” Whether or not it’s bullshit is irrelevant.

duchamp-urinalMichael Bird …Marcel Duchamp, 1917.

Eric Melin
I saw that Kinkade report..nice one, Michael! But I humbly submit that because this art “comes from a fan,” the film also gives credence that expression, even if its bad art, can come from a real place–and that everybody is going to see something different in art and choose what they like–like Kinkade. I love the ‘prank as art’ thing, even if Duchamp did it first; what’s wrong with being the cinematic equivalent of Duchamp? Bottom line: good movies show and don’t tell and by showing all different sides and intersecting lines of thought about this subject from buyers, press, artists, fans, etc., Banksy has created a stimulating work of art and managed to further Herzog’s idea of an ‘ecstatic truth’ that is arrived at partially by falsehood. It’s fucking brilliant, man. Maybe the masterstroke was calling it a documentary in the first place.

Michael Bird
Well, I’ll tell you, I obviously don’t like the film. To that end, there’s no point in arguing taste. I didn’t even think it did what it was trying to do well. Mileage will vary.

That aside, my main reason for disliking it is that it seems to posit that street art is the only valid art because it is free art. Bullshit. Second, it makes people distrust art as commerce. That’s a really bad thing because it takes advantage of the fact that people are really insecure about their understanding of art, and leverages an expensive prank on them. Now what was already seen as an elitist field is now more so, because its fully possible to the uninitiated that the artist is just making fun of them, and struggling to understand or contemplate it could be a folly. Great.

One could make the case that the reasoning for doing this is to sort of idiot-proof the audience for art, or that it’s a teachable moment. Maybe, but then we live in a state that just decided that it doesn’t need art anymore. Why? Why is an institution as foundational as art being shoved to the margins? It’s because conservatives have decided that art and the arts are the playground of gays and intellectual elites and real people who do real work aren’t going to pay money for an industry that mocks them and their values, and especially not in a tight economy. Ask them, that’s exactly what they’ll tell you.

Duchamp put down a urinal and called it a fountain. It was less a prank and more to say that any avenue to artistic expression is a valid one. I point out that it was done in 1917 to make the case that most in the art world already know this. I agree that a prank can be art (and I still sincerely contend most of Jackass’s are better). I agree that wherever there is a medium it can be a means to saying something of value.

What I disagree with is that Banksy was saying anything at all original or important with this piece, and further, the reckless disregard he has for the implications of this film show his perspective to be a nihilistic one. It’s immature and does nothing to enrich. It provokes, but merely for his own self-aggrandizing. I do wonder why he needed to document his own work in this; why he needed to show an obvious difference between himself and his creation. Its almost like he was worried someone might mistake all of his work for a prank. Whatever would be the harm of that, the next time he tries to cash in on “official” Banksy art? Does he have the ability to make a second documentary?

Michael Bird
I feel I should boil it down: Banksy’s only prank is the prank he is playing on the film community. But he is doing it at the expense of the art community, and that pisses me off.

Jon Sholly
OR, it’s ALL phony!

Eric Melin
Jon- I agree with almost everything in that article. I’m just not clear at what point Guetta started collaborating.

Eric Melin
Michael- You wrote: “I do wonder why he needed to document his own work in this; why he needed to show an obvious difference between himself and his creation.” Because the film doesn’t work without it. He’s actually exposing the largely unfamiliar film audience to what it is that makes street art “art,” and then challenging them to recognize it in a setting where they are predisposed to like the Kinkade-like guy. I don’t think it does a disservice to the art community at all, but I can appreciate that you do. I’m not in that community and you are. The fact that it gets people talking about this issue at the same time that the GOP is cutting off arts funding everywhere is a good thing, I think.See More

Michael Bird
You remember that scene in “Basquiat” when the guys are trying to steal the metal door that has some SAMO graffiti on it? And how when Basquiat tries to sign it so they can get more money for it they beat the shit out of him? Same point, told in less than a minute, and with an experience that actually enriches the viewer’s appreciation for art. I do love a good debate Eric, and this has been fun.

Eric Melin
Me too–Can I print it on the blog?

Michael Bird
Oh sure.

Jon Sholly
Wait! Once a point has been made in a movie, something similar can’t be done again? After watching this movie I felt an appreciation of street art that didn’t have before. That experience is invalid?

Michael Bird
Responsibility for validating your experiences watching a film is yours alone. If you got a great experience from watching this, I would never seek to take that away from you. What I am saying is that the same point can be made with less collateral damage. I don’t even mind if it is provocative (and I shouldn’t given the work I make). What I mind is someone who poses as an art outsider pissing all over his chosen field because he thinks it will be impressive to the film community. Some street are is very impressive. It’s not my favorite, but it has a place. Banksy’s is among my favorite of that field.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes for The Pitch. He’s former President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls, Ultimate Fakebook, and Truck Stop Love . He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Xavier February 16, 2011 at 2:14 pm

It does bring us back to the question is marketing an artform, if it is then banksy is certainly one of the foremost artists in that field. I definitely have a greater appreciation of street art as a whole than I did before I watched the movie so I don’t feel that he betrayed the street art community for the sake of his movie. The best thing it raised for me is how far does using your influences go before it becomes plagiarism or just uncreative and unoriginal. I agree with a few of the points that Michael made but I’m not sure I get why when Duchamp plays his “prank” it validates all artistic expression but when someone else does it its just a prank.


2 Michael Bird February 16, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Xavier: It wasn’t my point that Duchamp was playing a prank. That point belongs to someone else. My point was that Duchamp was utilizing a non-traditional media to make an art-based observation. It was one of the most influential pieces of art of the 20th century in that it opened up all media – especially appropriated media — to artistic expression (even pranking, I suppose, if only performance-based in some way). It was rather controversial in that.

It isn’t my point that anyone else playing a prank is void of artistic expression, either. Instead, it was my point that Banksy’s film is damaging to art because of the implications of his “documentary.”


3 Xavier February 16, 2011 at 3:22 pm

That’s the part I don’t agree with I’m not sure exactly how Banksy’s film is damaging to art, I just don’t see it. He’s inviting debate about the nature of art and I don’t think he does it in a dismissive or damaging way. I wasn’t saying you thought Duchamp was playing a prank but I was more asking when is something a prank and when is it as you say “utilizing a non-traditional media to make an art based observation”, who gets to decide this and how do we determine it, is it based on the intent of the artist, the impact it has, the reaction of the public and their interpretations?


4 Michael Bird February 16, 2011 at 4:11 pm

I am not playing the arbiter or what is prank and what is art observation. I am taking the film at its word that it is a documentary. Others are making the case that it is an art based observation via prank. Fair enough, I say. That’s their case to make.

My point is that which I stated: The film makes the viewer doubt whether commerce should have any place in art, and that’s a fairly glib stance to take for someone who makes money from art (as Banksy clearly does). Further, I am suggesting that stance is damaging to others who are trying to make money from art not spray-painted on walls (like myself).

I think the debate you’d like to have is whether or not I think I am entitled to decide. I’m not. So I guess I’m on your side in the debate. Everyone should decide for themselves. I’m merely stating my opinion, and standing behind it by defending it. The outcome is not finite, nor even likely measurable. But I feel my concerns are valid. You’re entitled to disagree.


5 Xavier February 16, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Alright then taking the film on the basis that it is a documentary would change the viewing experience I’m sure to the point where I don’t even know what opinion of it I’d have if I had watched it with that presumption. It is an interesting argument and maybe you’re right that the film does take a largely negative view of commerce within the art industry.
Nevertheless I think that as a film it succeeds and is very entertaining. For me the most interesting part was Thierry’s own show and the backlash from others in the street art community who felt he had ripped off the styles of those who he had been filming. This for me raised the most interesting question, when does something stop being influenced and become a rip off, and how far do you have to adapt or reinvent the original works that influenced you before it becomes your own?


6 Mackay February 17, 2011 at 3:19 am

I had a discussion with my boss a while back after seeing Exit Through The Gift Shop, which I took as a documentary. He believes Banksy may not be just one person, but a collective. I don’t think it’s damaging to art per se, depending on who you are and how you look at it.


7 Trey Hock February 17, 2011 at 6:44 am

Michael and Xavier,

I don’t think that the focus is the ability of art to be overvalued monetarily, but instead a condemnation of the artist persona and the fame that surrounds it. Sure there is the comment about how much a Banksy work made at auction, but that comment was only to reinforce that now all “serious” art collectors now had to have a Banksy. It’s not about money. It’s about the fame and spectacle that builds up around an artist, and which may be in direct opposition to the artwork being created.

Banksy is the perfect person to make this particular statement because of his anonymity. He is able to garner cred and success. We kinda need to take him seriously, but he avoids the fame and constructed social persona that artist are often forced into once they are well known.

The fame of street art is an affront to the statement of most street art. It’s rebellious, DIY, and antiestablishment. Banksy’s documentary mocks the process of fame, including the Johnny-come-latelys.

If it were a doc about money, then money would be front and center. We’d have a steady progression of dollar signs marching across the screens. Instead the comments are simple that brainwash didn’t earn his fame, but stole it from a rising art movement.

Because of this the documentary, regardless of whether it is “real” or “created”, works, and works well.


8 Michael Bird February 17, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Trey, I think that’s a good interpretation, and I’d likely agree with you if it weren’t for one thing: We are to assume that the work really did sell and they really did make the money on it that they purport.

If they did — and since they do not contradict the assumption that they did — the end result is that the casual viewer sees these transactions actually happen and happen to suckers. And the people who purchased the work weren’t just collectors. So given the above, how on earth would the casual viewer assume they can tell what an impostor is and what an authentic artist isn’t?

If they weren’t crossing into the domain of setting up their work in installed spaces and it were only in alleyways, I could buy that the film is only going to indict the commercialization of street art. I think it indicts the hyping and selling of all art and if artists were only setting on their hands and not inflicting themselves into the public space, no one would ever see their work and no one would ever buy it. Banksy may not like it, but we can’t all go repurposing billboards.


9 Trey Hock February 17, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Michael, I would repurpose a billboard with you any day of the week.


10 Michael Bird February 17, 2011 at 5:03 pm



11 Eli March 7, 2011 at 11:37 am

He shoulda won the Oscar.


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