Bright Lights Film Journal

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Cavemen to the Right

“Are we watching a faux-documentary within an entertainment vehicle? One suspects only Banksy knows. And he’s too busy painting to tell us.”

Graffiti – or if you prefer, street art – is a subversive mix of flaunted permission, impertinent location, lurid color choice, and in the case of the Banksy movie Exit Through the Gift Shop, a real live pink elephant. This bad behavior is a restorative toward all that should properly swirl around art: shock, awe, impudence, pleasure, spontaneous combustion. Whereas in the rarefied art world, we find ourselves knee-deep in deliberation as endless contextual storms seek to replenish bottomless teacups. Beckett and Pinter knew the tactic behind idle chatter. It papers over vacuums. Like a Negroponte switch, People’s Art has been tossed on the heap of antisocial behavior while the chattering class throws its patronage behind a stylized art-variant. We see “their” art in all the sad, sanctioned corners: galleries, museums, salons. These are the loci-cues that assure us we’re looking at art. You’re in the right place. Whew, glad the zip code cleared up all the confusion.

Is it pretty as a picture? Doesn’t matter. Where’d you hang it? Harvard Business School pointed the way to the primacy of location. Now we’re saddled with spatial context. It’s not Banksy’s pink elephant so much as it is the exhibiting room. If the spray-paint could only reach the Metropolitan Museum of Art wall unimpeded by adjunct structures and soundproof highway fences, we wouldn’t need the arbiters’ helpful bus-routes.

Blame cities and their surfeit of architecture for catching too much pent-up paint from too many penned-in cavemen. Once upon a time in a hunter-gatherer society far, far away, there was no settled culture, that is, the cave wall was unselfconsciously availed without critical hornswoggling or permit violation. Perhaps the Neanderthal suffered an abundance of insufferable art critics. In their efforts to explicate, they starved to death without the uniquely human pleasure of ochre-stained fingers. Whereas Homo Sapiens kept at his panoramas (with all the cerebrality his smarty-pants moniker implies) and devised traps, snares, and pits with pointy-sticks (nasty-end up) as a means to fill his belly. I bet you thought Bill Gates invented multitasking. Actually the General Protection Fault has its august roots in prehistoric tar-pits.

Just be careful. Too much self-referentiality and the paint brush can think itself into a paralytic funk. John Maynard Keynes warned about the perils of idle hands and excess leisure time – and he had the future in mind. What about all that had already transpired? In no time flat, human history became a bipedal sprint to the hyper-specialized economy of which Keynesianism was but a late-capitalist development. Whole buckets of culture broke out like a tepid, off-hours virus. Now art must be talked-up onto culture’s art-wing. Like butchers, bakers, and mural-makers, walls have their own discrete, market-assigned loads to bear. Epitomizing late-capitalism’s baloney sandwich, artists now break bread with the market, that is, they bake bread to make bread. Cave walls once rose to the occasion of furtive, bloody knuckles. Such a pity the preponderance of humanity must now cower in the shadow of impervious gray sprawl. Nobody asked the cavemen whether skyscrapers were a suitable subterranean surrogate. Why should they sweat the suitability of the underpass as a canvas?

We might as well introduce money and power. There is a property dispute pulsing beneath the paint. Some surface-dweller owns the bricks and mortar. He wants to be the landlord of all he surveys on his property tax statement. When his domiciled aesthetic clashes with the creative whimsy of the evicted caveman, the latter is deemed a vandal. Power owns the cops, so it’s an easy case to build. Amidst this dense matrix, the urban center, creativity must make its bones on the fly. Street art takes back the streets from the tyranny of structure and the prerogative of ownership. Virgin porticos are dragged back into the cave for a proper fucking-up. But in the process, art becomes a pejorative, a criminal enterprise. Examining millennia-old antelope-forms married to rock, one can almost imagine Africa’s Laas Gaa’l walls were formed to comport precisely this composition. The broad beige stone faces look like a vertical Serengeti plain; whereas urban graffiti looks like a hostile act because our eyes have been socialized to admire Corinthian columns and starched-white pillars.

Is everyone seated for the movie yet? The theatre is a cave where belief is suspended and Plato’s allegorical half-truths flit across a canvas wall. So we’re not as far afield, dear film enthusiasts, as you might have thought. [Though it may be an odd forum in which to make this admission, by and large, I am deeply suspicious of the analytical architects of film, a mise en scene here, a dialectically salted pretzel there. Please, no cartographers in the cave while the lanterns are flickering. We are not here to erect infrastructure around the flittingly ephemeral. That’s why we gave the Masons protractors and told them to go away. Asked to explain his poems, Robert Frost replied rather huffily, “Would you have me say it in more or less adequate-words?” Or of the symbology behind Guernica, Picasso: “the horse is a horse . . .” of course, of course. Picasso, of course, was lying in the sense that he knew surface-fed equations, with enough encouragement, would undermine the eclipsing magic of the subliminal, the psyche’s own jealous cave.]

There is a Matryoshka effect at play, too, caves within caves. Ever been in a cave within a cave? It’s dark as shit. Holy dark; the preparatory ushering-in of Paracelsus’ lumen naturae: “The light from above made the darkness darker; but the lumen naturae is the light of darkness itself, which illuminates its own darkness, and this light the darkness comprehends.” Don’t let the inky black fool you. Caves are places of enlightenment; like the womb, seminal discovery zones.

In Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy is the man in the cave or at least in the drawn-up hoodie. His caveman-choir, the powerless, employ paint to get beneath the showboat power of steel and mortar. Banksy is riding a cavernous phenomenon for which his ubiquitous sidewalk chimps and rats serve as liminal markers. The anthropomorphized chimp is an accommodation – between the caveman and the Apollonian. The rat picks through the detritus of urban blight, stealing what’s left.

In The Mind in the Cave, cognitive archaeologist David Lewis-Williams surfaces this potent archetype, suggesting that “cave walls were viewed as the sacred interface between human beings and chthonic forces.” This is another way of saying that, leaving caves, we lost our minds. To which movies offer a mild palliative, graffiti too. Seen in this light, Plato’s allegory was a polemic circulated by Apollonian sun-worshippers hell-bent on propagating the “towering famine” of Manhattan (musician Scott Walker’s term); the latter image is of course a paradox, spiritual impoverishment in the shadow of superstructures endowed with God-like stature and dimension. No wonder the concrete jungles of urban fiction teem with madness, alienation, and despair. The urban sky-scape is essentially two-faced, which is to say schizophrenic. Tons of overhead concrete suggest a large-scale, portentous undertaking. In a spiritual sense, however, there’s really nothing happening – except of course the ironic, all-too-human imprimaturs of itinerant cavemen and flippant doodlers. Cities are the real empty suits. They’ve settled their big fat cement asses over the mouths of our beckoning caves. More than a recipe for urban angst, we have uncovered a tautology: the urban landscape is angst-by-design.

Jean Hypolite speaks of the innate “aggressiveness” informing the tension of our “first myth, inside and outside . . . you feel the full significance of this myth of inside and outside in alienation, which is founded on these two terms.” Inside the city, we are outside the cave. Street artists paint in darkness, not only as a tactic for evading arrest, but to better capture the atmospheric texture of their psychic wellspring, the cave. They are the last great humans of a dying race. They are inside-out with despair, trying to paint themselves back.

Thus the graffitist is the caveman stripped of his subterranean lair and forced to make do. Fuck the edifice-builders, the Apollonian tight-asses wed to soaring power and sunburst. All that Nietzschean/Randian shit has us flying ever higher with rarefied odes to Zarathustra’s Mount Penis. Sexual heights are still largely a horizontal affair as the soulful cry from the streets redounds with a soul-based aversion to nosebleed heights: “let’s get down,” “get down tonight,” “I’m down for it,” etc. With street art the people are bringing the cave to the tower so that even the 37th floor façade can witness the ashen-cloud of man’s deepest, darkest forebodings. The Masons, with their overarching fetish for structure, are the caveman’s sworn enemy. Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick’s death sentence. An eleventh-hour Ishmael, he exposes the Illuminati’s contempt for all things cave. Don’t believe me? Follow the rainbow, bitch. Dorothy did. It made her a lifelong habitué of psychiatric wards. Before Siskel and Ebert, there was Satan, silently imploring Christ just beyond Gethsemane’s turnstiles. He’ll draw the curtains on the ending credits too.

There’s every reason to believe cave painting always had a deep spiritual component. By way of crude metaphor Carl Jung describes the developmental path of the human psyche as beginning with the foundational cave. In 2010’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, documentarian Werner Herzog describes the images in France’s 32,000-year-old Chauvet caves as “proto-cinema” and the early murmurings of the human soul. This should make filmologists sit up with pride. They are first-order theologians. Herzog speaks of the utter still silence of the cave where you can hear your own heartbeat. How different this is from the cruel, heartless city where noise is a stratagem for displacing self-awareness and expanding alienation: “If we can separate you from meaning, we can fill the void with more porno. Then, armed with obscene profits (literally), we will construct ever-larger towers.” Apart from a bull banging a chick – Picasso’s proto-minotaur – Chauvet is a grand panoply of animal forms. We had yet to see ourselves. This made us, with paradoxical bliss, fully aware. No wonder aboriginal dudes hate getting their pictures taken. Intuitively they know the spiritual diminishment that results when the soul is introduced to the dull capsule of its own delimiting form.

The Earth’s bosom resonates even today with the silent hum of the cave-dweller. Johnny Cash the Everyman-in-Black wore his sooty moniker like a badge unto death. He was born (again) in a cave and never looked back. Here is Pop Matters’ Mark Desrosiers recounting the tale:

In October 1967 Johnny Cash was huddled deep inside the cold dark Nickajack Cave waiting to die. The Man in Black had spent ten years in a hellish cycle of addiction and self-mortification, and he wanted to formalize his separation from God by crawling as far into the cave as he could, waiting for death to overtake him without God as witness. His wanted the thick, sinister intestine of his country to digest him finally, to dissolve him away. It didn’t work. His arrogance was rebuked by his faith, and he started scraping and crawling, crablike, until he staggered out of the cave hours later exhausted and confused. Soon after that he had his own hit television show.

The moral is clear. If you want the network suits to pay attention, you had better graffiti a stalactite or two. “I fell into a spray-paint ring of fire. I went down, down, down like a Sherwin-Williams buyer.”

If Banksy is the caveman in this picture, who the hell is Thierry Guetta? He’s a dupe, an actor, a foil, a crazy, an entrepreneur, a documentarian, a capitalist – or some combination thereof. He is modern, woefully differentiated man, a Bill Gates multitasking hydra, profoundly confused, infernally disjointed, blinded by the unremitting glare of sunlight. Having lost his mother at a tender age (cave-womb separation) and in a cruel and wrenching way, Guetta seeks to camcord everything that moves for fear it might perish before his eyes. His camera is thus a bulwark, or a mitigating filter, against the vagaries of the future. He never watches what he films. Once subdued on cartridge (his floor is littered with thousands of the little black buggers), the moment poses no further threat. It has already traipsed across the cave wall. It is past.

Guetta is a retail impresario by day. When the night comes, his true calling asserts. He is a graffiti junkie and chronicler of urban cave art. This documentarian impulse, along with a shared fascination, leads Guetta to the legendary British street-artist Banksy. The two form a wary collaboration even as the accommodation represents a moral lapse for the normally pitch-perfect, camera-shy Banksy. He is succumbing to the ego-fueled gallery-impulse to “preserve his work.” You see, graffiti is notoriously transient. The coppers are always painting it over. Guetta’s camera furnishes an archival need. Banksy’s alliance with the ephemeral thus diluted, the market, master expropriator, perceives an edge and moves in to price things. In assigning extrinsic value, the market robs intrinsic value. That’s the Mephistophelean deal. Commoditization doesn’t come free. It chews your ass often, starting from the side where you keep your wallet. Art becomes a consumable. The luckier pieces get replicated into iconic stature. In more innocent days, Banksy’s ubiquitous rat was not an icon because there was no money behind it. The rat was merely recurrent. There is a difference.

Guetta is a born buy-low, sell-high guy. Acting on Banksy’s suggestion that he become a street artist (really Banksy’s way of banishing Guetta as the latter increasingly appears more like a camera-obsessed crazy than a committed documentarian), Guetta’s newfound painterly passion collides with his reptilian impulse to screw those hapless consumers always in search of the next big puckerless kiss. In Los Angeles there is no shortage of vapid trend-seekers. Guetta finds the lemmings in rare form: he cannot price his stuff high enough; so much for the devout caveman. In Exit Through the Gift Shop the cash register wins. But then doesn’t it always, tireless shopper?

A swirl of rumors has engulfed the movie. This only adds to the fascination and the multiplexing mirrors in the hall. Is the whole thing a put-on? Is Guetta a Banksy creation and Banksy a Hollywood sell-out? Are we watching a faux-documentary within an entertainment vehicle? One suspects only Banksy knows. And he’s too busy painting to tell us. Just as Los Angeles’ glitterati are too busy making Banksy’s art the next collector’s wet dream. We see Brat Pitt sans Angelina (damn it) and other Tinsel Town sophisticates milling about like a bunch of well-tanned Stanleys fawning over the latest Dr. Livingstone. Here’s a game-changing context-shifter. After years of toiling in the grimy streets of London with the lighting askew and the scaffolding perilously makeshift, Banksy is a sudden genius. He has arrived. At a place. A nondescript California warehouse with paintings on the wall and a pink elephant shitting in the foyer. Ka ching! Adding to the self-referential, high-irony vibe, the movie that explores artistic selling-out has sold $3.3 million worth of tickets.1 Hardly a blockbuster, but perhaps Oscar material if they can only figure out the right category.

As for reptilian primacy of place (the turtle’s favorite sunning log), wouldn’t it be cool to shut down all known addresses just to watch the famous sputter about in an agoraphobic stupor? To be seen in the right place, there must first be places. But that takes us back to the undifferentiated blackness of caves where the soul (archetype for the cathedral) regains primacy, material accumulations are blessedly indistinct, a Mercedes feels – for all the world – like a rounded outcrop of igneous rock, and Angelina Jolie could just as easily be your wife. The cave’s the thing. Human consciousness got its primordial legs in Lascaux and Chauvet. The metropolis is a phallic misfire inspired, enviably enough, by Dionysus, who, endowed with a God-given package, didn’t feel the need to grab a compensatory trowel.

How the Masonic scrapers poke the recumbent sky. You can almost hear heaven as it stares up at the ceiling (that’s terra firma for us) muttering, “is it in yet?” In simian recompense, at least King Kong got to dangle his schlong over Manhattan while enduring the strafes of airborne midgets haunted by those twin fears, Length and Girth. In deference to caves and Angelina, Length is Depth spelled backwards. Every girl knows it makes a difference.

  1. In the U.S. market as of October 2011. []