two films and one tv show against modern art
Morley Safer ran a follow up to his infamous 1993 piece that slammed contemporary art as a sham. This time around, the piece was a dud. It rehashed the same ground but with less oomph. As usual, Safer wondered whether this piece or that piece was art and seemed flummoxed by the prices. Given that much of the art he trashed fifteen years ago has retained its value and has begun to be appreciated, Safer’s expose fizzled.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t dig into the art world and criticize it. If you want a really great analysis of modern art and its market, you should turn off 60 Minutes. Instead, watch two recent films and a tv show: (untitled), My Kid Could Paint That and the reality television show Work of Art.
All three works take the modern art world seriously and take the time to investigate it on its own terms. They all allow people to explain themselves and include the critics and the haters. They aren’t afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. The films also are charitable in that they allow the best arguments to be made for modern art, even the stuff that appears lame and pathetic. What makes these works rise above the cheap journalism of Morely Safer is that modern art is a social field predicated on being edgy, which means that a lot of art isn’t meant to be pretty or pleasing. It’s about a concept, which is a form of art that simply isn’t for most people. And that’s the crux of the argument about the value for modern art.
The first film is My Kid Could Paint That, a documentary about Marla Olmstead. In 2004, Marla Olmstead was four years old and she began selling abstract paintings for thousands of dollars. At that point, a documentary film maker begins to follow the Olmstead family and make a film about how a family deals with the fall out from having a genius daughter.
The film takes a sudden turn when 60 Minutes runs a piece about Marla. The piece talks about Marla and then turns to a psychologist who claims that it was unlikely that Marla made those painting by herself. The family moves into defense mode. The allure of the work is that a child did it. If it was really the father, then it becomes ho-hum paint splatters. The market for the work collapses and the family is accused of staging a hoax for profit.
Michael Kimmelman, an art writer for the New York Times, sums up the issue pretty well. The high prices for slapdash abstract art by children touches on the anxiety surrounding modern art. Why would people pay such high sums for work that looks simplistic or childish? Why should we take something seriously if it requires little skill to produce? Why should we approve of something that makes fun of common notions of beauty or elegance?
The answer is that the price reflects what the market will bear. But the question becomes sociological, why is there a group of people who are willing to pay for such weird stuff? One answer is simply heterogeneity. People simply have different tastes. Some people like the rough and edgy, and occasionally mystic, aspect of modern art, just as there is diversity in musical taste. Most people just like simple melodies and love songs, others like death metal.
A second answer is that the price of art reflects the narrative that people have built around the art. In a short follow up film, the director, Amir Bar-Lev, presents a simple example. Take two water bottles. If Abraham Lincoln drank from one bottle, it’s price will be a million bucks, while the other bottle is still$.99. Same thing with art. An art work can be simple, but expensive, if it has historical importance.
Let’s return to Marla Olmstead. The art itself, in my view, is rather conventional abstraction. I don’t think it is particularly notable. What drives the price is the narrative around it. By being (allegedly) painted by a child, the artwork becomes historically interesting. Probably not enough to change the survey art course you might have taken in college, but enough to be notable as an example of prodigy. Thus, the experience of art might be aesthetic, but the price is social and historical.
(untitled) is a comedic independent film about a musician who falls in love with a woman who runs an art gallery. The film covers a lot of familiar ground. The male lead, Adrian, is a weird avant-garde musician who literally makes music from noise and telling. The female lead, Madeleine, makes a living selling indecipherable conceptual art.
The whole film is built on an enormous irony. Adrian is clearly a musical oddball, yet he sees contemporary art as a sham. The closer he gets to Madeleine, the more he thinks, “How can people pay for this garbage?” And indeed, Madeleine makes a career dealing, literally, nothing. She shows an artist who doesn’t produce much in terms of physical things and who works in nearly empty space.
(untitled) doesn’t just trade in irony, it’s also a fairly canny summary of how art careers (and music careers) play out. Adrian is frustrated that people just don’t get his work, but he eventually realizes that weird has a place in this world. In a tiny space in the world of modern composition, Adrian eventually draws fans and he eventually realizes that it’s ok to be weird and to have three fans.
Madeleine also reaches a similar point by the end of the film. At the beginning, she tries to subsidize the truly bizarre artists with sales of works by less provocative artists who paint sunsets and inoffensive abstract canvases. This is actually a common tactic in the world of contemporary art, which many fail to notice. This strategy causes problems as these “bland” artists soon realize that Madeleine doesn’t really respect them and they fail to realize that the weird artists bring customers and a degree of legitimacy to their work. By the end of the film, the sunset painter has retreated to a career selling pictures in galleries at a resort town. He, too, realizes that he will never be a “great artist,” but he also seems to appreciate that it is a good life to make well meaning art that makes people happy.
Work of Art was a Bravo reality television show that ran in 2010 and 2011. For each of the two seasons, the show began with about a dozen artists. Each episode, they were given a task like “make some street art.” Then, a few days later, they would show their art to a panel: an art critic, one or two dealers, an art patron, and a guest artist. The “best” art moved on and the worst went on the chopping block. The winner got a cash prize and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
The critics of the show seemed to always miss what was interesting. For example, many complained that it didn’t capture the reality of the art world. True, but that is not it’s purpose. It is not a documentary. It’s a game show. Many complained about the art, which was often bad. Again, true, but beside the point.
Despite the fact that Work of Art is essentially a game show, the show has its strengths. It is one of the few (only?) modern television programs to discuss at length why some art was good and some was bad. Even the successor shows, like Gallery Girls, short played the issue, instead focusing on personality or office politics. Every single episode ended with an in-depth discussion of why the judges wanted to boot someone.
Work of Art also, unintentionally, showed how art careers are won and lost. It seemed to me that many contestants honestly believed that winning the show would transform their careers. It is not an irrational hope. The burst of publicity associated with a major show could boost sales, or help an artist meet a dealer willing to represent them.
In the years since the end of the show, it is hard to say that any artist has been catapulted to the top of the art world, or to even experience a notable boost in their visibility in the art world. For example, Abdi Farah won the 2010 edition of the show. He has sponsorship from Prismacolor, but Google did not immediately reveal if he had representation at a gallery or if he had a major solo show beyond the Work of Art finale. Kymia Nawabi, who won the 2011 season, has her CV online and it shows that her solo shows post-Work of Art come at the same pace as before she was on television. Indeed, looking at the list of contestants, it is hard to find any cases of a sudden shift in career trajectory after the show.
This points to a deeper issue about the nature of the arts. There is a lot that goes into a career. It is not just the pedigree of your art school or whether people think you have good technique. It is about a subtle, often subterranean, discussion of your importance relative to the overall narrative of the history of art. That won’t be changed with a television show appearance, or even $100,000 and a corporate sponsorship. Rather, it is about the artist’s work, the jury of dealers, buyers, and other artists, and, of course, how well the artist can play the “office politics” games of the art world.
Each of these shows walks a line between criticism and admiration of contemporary art. In truth, it takes a lot of courage to put your work out there for criticism. It’s worse when you try to sell it. Many artists won’t even attend art fairs because watching people pass by your work is painful. I think each of these shows, in their own ways, nods in this direction. Also, oddly, they collectively admit that it is ok to be weird in art. They don’t take the easy route and condemn edgy art. They admit that contemporary art is often bad, but it is often good as well. If not, there would be no point in making these films at all.
Ultimately, what makes these efforts so appealing is that they dive deep into a field that is deathly serious without an attitude of dismissal. While we might have own preferences about what art speaks to us, the only conversation that really matters for the public is whether art is worth remembering years from now. And if ain’t one for the books, then you shouldn’t make a film about it.