Exit Through The Spiritual Gift Shop
On bridges, in dark alleys, under freeway overpasses, in the middle of busy streets, and anywhere else there is room, a group of visionaries are making their art. They’re doing it on the city itself. From a familiar British phone booth murdered and left bleeding to the obscure yet iconic face of André René Roussimoff – better known as Andre the Giant – plastered across broad and tall surfaces all over LA, street art is becoming more ingrained in the social consciousness. We love it. Most of us are struck by its vigilante nature. Even the artistically blind among us – a camp that I may arguably be in – get the sense that these works of art are tapping into real emotions and conveying real messages, even if we can’t put our finger on what they are.
The film Exit Through the Gift Shop captures street art by telling the fascinating story of the growth of this phenomenon from the point of view of the artists themselves. A man with a camera – his name is Thierry Guetta – gets an inside look at a tight knit group challenging typical social conventions and winning.
Then the film takes a critical turn.
Banksy, a true artist, tells Thierry to make art. Thierry drops his camera and jumps headlong into the occupation of those he admires.
Then, this unwitting infiltrator – the man (lunatic) with the camera – transforms what was once both visceral and genuine into sickening consumerist reproductions. He holds his own art show, which proves to be enormous and highly profitable.
And nobody – not even the artists themselves – can draw the line between what is real art and what isn’t. The video ends with two sobering scenes.
First, Shepard Fairey, the creator of the “obey” posters and the designer of President Barack Obama’s acclaimed “Hope” poster, walks around the art show of Thierry – now stylized as Mr. Brainwash. He looks a mixture of sad and annoyed. Over the footage of Shepard walking around, his voice says, “even when you have the best intentions, things can go awry.”
Second, in the final few minutes, Banksy appears on screen – of course with his face covered and his voice altered – and says, “maybe Thierry was a genius all along, maybe he got a bit lucky, maybe it means art is a bit of a joke.” And then with that, the movie winds to an end and it is unclear whom the joke is on. A captivating story of a genuine endeavor commercialized.
Although Christianity isn’t art – regardless of how often some like to cast it as such – there is a parallel here.
At the cross, Jesus does something so dynamic, unexpected and astounding that an entire movement is born unlike anything else in history. Against prejudice, internal conflict, heresy, and vicious persecution, Christianity expands to engulf the earth. And it does so because something real happened. The death and resurrection was tangible. Its truth tapped into the soul of humanity and spoke to it like never before.
And today, we struggle with a terrible concession. We want Christianity to be built on that reality, but often end up with commercialized shells of spirituality and Bible studies. Instead of actually dipping into the wealth of riches provided by God’s act in Christ, we mass reproduce it, package it, and sell it to unsuspecting individuals. We give into the money, comfort, fame, or the social acceptance and settle for something less than genuine. And worse than the invasion of this disingenuous spirituality into our churches, bible studies, missions trips, and seminaries is its infiltration into our own spiritual lives. We don’t want to be faced with the actual blood of Jesus’ cross or the blazing light of his resurrection. Instead we want the Mr. Brainwash version that trades a genuine reaction to the marvelous victory of God in Christ for a consumerist sham.
Shepard Fairey got it right, even the best intentions can go awry: with art and with spirituality.
Mr. Brainwash is a fitting name.