“Why don’t we like people who make contemporary art?” I asked myself while watching Velvet Buzzsaw, a horror movie about the art world. In the film, vengeful artworks murder, disembowel and decapitate people from this milieu. Blood flows from curators and aspiring artists, from authoritative critics and influential gallery owners, and even their ambitious assistants. Do we show any mercy? No, for the inhabitants of the art world there is no mercy. The viewer watches the slaughter of this pretentious company with a vicious satisfaction. Even I – though as a critic and curator I would make a perfect target – caught myself failing to feel sympathy for my colleagues (albeit fictional ones).
Velvet Buzzsaw was called to my attention by Agata Pyzik, an intellectual, writer and commentator; an exceptionally incisive person. You can scare yourself to death much better with other horror films, but you won’t see the art world portrayed anywhere else. Films on this subject are rare birds. By the way, it’s intriguing, or actually typical, that when one of these birds flies onto the screen, it’s only to circle over a battlefield littered with the corpses of art people, killed off by malicious scriptwriters.
Contemporary art was once an anti-hero of culture: an abstract, unaesthetic, incomprehensible field. Shocking! At the otherwise outstanding Zachęta gallery exhibition Puppets: Theater, Film, Politics, I recently saw a pithy short film on this subject. This puppet film from 1958 is titled – also maliciously – The Abstractionists’ Exhibition. We’re at a vernissage, guests are gathering in a gallery. The curator makes a speech, of course a long one, but also a boring one; nobody listens. Finally the ribbon is cut, the paintings are unveiled and – oh horror! – everywhere it’s contemporary art, all the paintings are abstract! The visitors cover their eyes; they want to escape, but it’s too late; one after another, the assembled guests fall down in a faint.
Will the gallery guests, wounded by art, return to their senses? Was anyone’s health permanently damaged by their exposure to abstraction? The film doesn’t answer this question, but we know it. Everything will be fine. The audience will wake up and reconcile with contemporary art. Museums showing it will sprout up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, from Warsaw to Bilbao to Dubai, and people will queue up for tickets; at peak times, Tate Modern will be rammed.
Fairs, biennales and exhibition spaces will spring up; nobody will be fainting at any more exhibitions, except maybe one of Marina Abramović’s – there we’ll see cases of people losing consciousness in ecstasy, as once happened at Beatles concerts. We’ve come to love contemporary art; the people who make it, not so much (yet?). Cinema, that unfailing mirror of reality, doesn’t like them much either. It only rarely bestows its attention on this world. There are countless films about doctors, lawyers and even serial killers. The latter are presented as people who are basically sympathetic; at one time, each of us has cried for Léon the Professional. The representatives of contemporary art, if they do make it in front of the camera lens, don’t look so good. In The Square – the best story about the art world in recent years – art and its institutions are shown as an allegory of the declining West, while the hero, a Swedish curator, is a hopeless clown, a bankrupt liberal, hopelessly entangled in political correctness, his own hypocrisy and pretentious poses.
In Velvet Buzzsaw, similar poses are struck – perhaps for the first time in the history of Hollywood – by real stars. Jake Gyllenhaal, the unforgettable Donnie Darko, plays an affected critic; Rene Russo, a calculating gallery owner; Toni Collette is a corrupt institutional curator; and John Malkovich a conceited artist who makes resolute faces, but in fact has sold out long ago. A picture of real (artistic) life. It’s no coincidence that the film starts at the Art Basel fair in Miami. At fairs, we know, the art world’s cynicism reaches its zenith. Just for this sequence, it’s worth seeing Velvet Buzzsaw, even though it’s a slasher flick, not a festival hit of the calibre of The Square, or a film that recalls productions about contemporary artists, like those made in Poland by Łukasz Ronduda, creator of The Performer and A Heart of Love. Thanks to these last two films, we’ve been able to see a piece of the Polish art world on the big screen. But it’s significant that even Ronduda, though he himself is a critic, doesn’t spoil his colleagues. The gallery owners in his films are praying mantises; the curators have hearts of stainless steel; everyone dresses in black.
In Velvet Buzzsaw, this entire affected company (finally?) gets what’s coming to it. The heroes find an exceptional artistic legacy. Its creator died in misery and obscurity, but the people of the art world are already circling over his art like vultures scenting a fat carrion: money, fame, prestige. In the art world, such scavenging usually works, but not this time; we’re in a horror film, where the artworks’ power is not merely symbolic. I won’t give any more details, so as not to spoil it for those who still want to see Velvet Buzzsaw and feast their eyes on the sight of art people severely punished for the parasitism, and maybe even more so for their unbearable posturing.
When I watched the film, I was most afraid not of the murderous paintings, but of myself. Seen from the side, do I also look like one of the buffoonish figures who are mocked in this bloody tale? Is that a picture of the art world, to which – in good faith, I swear! – I have devoted the best years of my life? Does our community deserve such severe censure? Or maybe it’s the opposite, and the art world deserves a film where a gallery owner, a curator or a critic is presented as a killer with a heart or gold, like Léon? It turns out that for the moment, we don’t. But I assure you: we’re working on it.
Translated by Nathaniel Espino
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