Exit through the Gift Shop
People often have the mistaken impression that technology is all about invention and not about marketing.
— Jeff Tucker
What applies to technology also applies to art. As books like Literature and the Economics of Liberty and Worldly Goods have shown, the creation of many classic works of art and literature must be understood in the context of commercial society's spontaneous order. The new documentary film Exit Through the Gift Shop, playing in art-house cinemas throughout the country this year, is an excellent and comedic illustration of the observation that the most successful innovations are all about marketing.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is about the latest big innovation in the art world, i.e. street art — high end graffiti art best typified by Banksy, the " scarlet pimpernel of street art" and the director of the film. What is so intriguing about the movie is that Banksy first tried to make a documentary about the authentic origins of street art and then realized a more interesting film might be about the wildly successful commercialization of street art. You see, street art was originally an anonymous, furtive outdoor display for free; it later spawned publicly attended, organized events in vast indoor spaces for substantial monetary profit.
For many, this film is beyond intriguing. It is shattering and heretical to those who see art and artists as essentially divorced from commerce. They don't see that innovation springing from the authentic interests of innovators naturally becomes commercialized as it is popularized, and that in fact innovation requires commercialization to popularize it. The common view is of the romantic artist, out of whose head that art springs fully formed.
Banksy is all about provocation, and this film is a provocation. Many still believe that the events the film depicts never occurred (but for the purposes of this article, let's take it at face value). The film prankishly pulls the rug out from under many viewers.
The joke is on Banksy too. He knows it, he's appalled by the outcome, and he knows that it makes the joke even funnier.
For an innovation to become popular, it must become, well, popular.
When people, including the stars of the movie, started doing street art, they did it because they loved it. Other people, a small number at first, also loved looking at it. Any communication must at some level assume a common denominator. To talk with others one must speak "a common language." Street art spoke to this small group of fans.
Initially, the artists themselves found each other, kept in touch, and visited each other. Over time, intermediaries — e.g., writers of magazines, web sites, emails, blogs — came along and told other people how "cool" or "hot" this new art form was. At first it was all very underground and unknown; it was a new discovery and a new world. But word spread.
Eventually, public demand, and a limited supply, led to interest in the art by people who were willing to pay for it. Any artist or innovator wishing to speak successfully to an audience will find that commercialization and popularization will inevitably come with success. Those who create something of value to others will eventually find their work popularized and commercialized, escaping the creator as it takes on a life of its own.
This is in fact what happens in the movie.
Illustrating Authentic Innovation
The movie was at first intended to document the authenticity of street art, claiming that the origins of street art are not in commercialism but in the creative impulse of the artists. Instead, the film ended up being billed by the creators as "the world's first street art disaster movie." It plays like a farce.
The movie starts out by stating that the filming began when a Frenchman, Thierry Guetta, was filming street artists and wanted to film Banksy. As it turned out, Banksy decided that Guetta's adventures would make a much more interesting topic for a film. He was right.
Street art is a hybrid form of graffiti; stencils, posters, stickers, sculpture, and mosaics are placed out in public (and sometimes in private) without permission from the authorities or property owners. Typically, an otherwise blank surface is vandalized with a piece of art work. While this is unethical, in the scale of criminality street artists are mere rogues. They are more concerned with putting something artistic on their preferred canvas, the blank urban wall, than with putting up anything permanently defacing a home or business.
Here are some classic examples by Banksy. The first is a "murdered" British Telecom payphone. I hope Banksy will litter something similar in front of my building.
This next image is on the wall of a sexual-health clinic. Due to popular demand, the city council allowed this image to remain.
And it is hard for me to not love someone like Banksy, who creates a flower-throwing street fighter like this.
The movie tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in LA. Thierry Guetta was obsessed with filming everything, but he would never do anything with the film. He would just record one tape after another.
One day his life changed. He finally found a subject to focus on. His cousin was the street artist known as Invader. Thierry Guetta decided to film him and then film all the different street artists all over the world. Often Guetta would serve as an assistant and lookout as they vandalized buildings with their art. Guetta thought what they were doing was cool, and like the artists he also found evading the police and scaling walls to put up art exciting.
One might be wondering how Thierry Guetta could afford all of this. The film does a good job of explaining the source of his funds. He had a business where he would buy bags of unwanted or slightly defective clothes for $50 a bag and sell the clothes for $5,000 to hipsters frequenting his hip LA clothing store. He understood sales and marketing. However, to his street-art colleagues he appeared obsessive, a bit crazy, not particularly cool, and not very bright.
As Thierry Guetta continued his new volunteer career of filming street artists at work, he wanted to film the ultimate street artist — Banksy.
Banksy is a charming and funny figure in the film. He's also completely anonymous. He is always hooded and his voice is disguised.
Banksy is the most famous vandal of them all. He's put his own artwork up in museums. He vandalized the wall between Israel and the West Bank. Not surprisingly, he prefers to stay as far away from the authorities as possible.
Banksy once created a hundred thousand fake £10 notes with Princess Diana's face on them. As it turned out, they were so good that people thought they were real. So Banksy kept them instead of distributing them and risking a bid for counterfeiting.
Thierry and Banksy
In the movie, Banksy comes to LA, and Thierry is thrilled to meet him. Thierry proceeds to make himself as indispensable as possible, becoming Banksy's assistant and personal cameraman. Banksy realizes that, due to the transitory nature of street art, it is a pretty good idea to have someone document it.
Thierry and Banksy have many adventures together, including enduring four hours of interrogation in the Magic Kingdom. They become friends.
Later on, Banksy holds an art show in LA. This results in half of Hollywood standing in a huge line around the block in some low-rent warehouse district to see his work. Banksy's work thus becomes highly salable. Rich people who collect Warhols and Lichtensteins then see Banksy as the hot new thing.
The Artist Becomes the Filmmaker
As the movie tells it, the street artists had always vaguely assumed Guetta was doing something with his film. They didn't realize that he was just obsessed with the act of filming itself, and that he knew nothing about editing and production. They wondered when he would create something.
Faced with concerns that street art is selling out and becoming too commercial, Banksy asks Guetta to use his footage to create a documentary about the authentic life of the street artist.
Guetta then creates an unwatchable film (which is shown inside the Exit through the Gift Shop film), the visual equivalent of a constant buzz — one multisecond clip after another, leaving a viewer unfamiliar with the footage with no ability to find any meaning. "He was maybe just somebody with mental problems who happened to have a camera," says Banksy.
Then Banksy decides to take matters in to his own hands. He uses Guetta's tapes to make his own film. Banksy said that he didn't know anything about how to make a film, but neither did Thierry Guetta, and that didn't stop him.
To distract Thierry Guetta, Banksy suggests Guetta go to LA and put on an art show. This leaves Banksy alone with the tapes, while the poor sucker Thierry Guetta wastes his time on a fool's errand.
Guetta got to work on his art show, called "Life is Beautiful." The funny thing was that he had no known artistic experience, and certainly no years of practice. That didn't stop him.
What he did have was years of hanging around many other artists watching them work, and a mind that sees diamonds where others see only rocks. Remember, he made his money selling $50 bags of clothing for $5,000.
He renames himself "MBW," or Mr. Brainwash, and creates his own art factory. He hires people, lots of people. He tells them what he wants and they build it or put it together in Photoshop. He ends up creating a ton of art for his show.
The "Life is Beautiful" event gets written up in LA Weekly, and MBW uses a great Banksy quote to ironically promote his own show: "Mr. Brainwash is a force of nature, he's a phenomenon. And I don't mean that in a good way."
The work, as far as one can tell, ranges from pretty derivative to blatant knockoff.
Mr. Brainwash says he sees everything as propaganda. Indeed, remember that many reviewers of the movie think the whole thing was a hoax.
Everyone working at the art show thinks it is a disastrous production. "He's just kind of retarded," says one worker.
However, even before the show started, Guetta was fielding calls from buyers who hoped they could snap up his works for tens of thousands of dollars. Thus, the show is a great commercial success, tons of people come, and MBW makes a million dollars in sales. His natural flair for sales and marketing comes through, and he even gets the job of making the cover for Madonna's celebration CD.
In reality, the street artists were not really aloof from society — they interacted with each other from the beginning, and they depended on spontaneous order's provision of plentiful art supplies, including copy shops, spray paint, communication tools, and blank walls.
The mythos of street art and, especially Banksy, was from the start wrapped in the themes of the romantic artist — apart from society, the solitary, uncompromising, unknown, Promethean creative genius literally breaking the law for the benefit of man. So, naturally the story of Thierry Guetta, or MBW, is seen as a disaster for those who see street art as an art form that must be divorced from commerce to be authentic or meaningful.
However, throughout history, classics tend to be former bestsellers, as Literature and the Economics of Liberty points out. A new invention, an innovation in art, becomes successful only through marketing. In fact, in the case of Madonna's CD, the art is used for marketing.
Thierry Guetta is a spectacular case of selling and marketing the innovation of art. It is through the interaction of many people in the marketplace of ideas and goods that street art, indeed any innovation, is able to reach millions.