(Untitled) is a funny, intelligent satire about the avant-garde art world. But it is an extremely loving depiction, and all the main characters are bright, likeable, and sincere — well, almost all, you just can’t like the frightfully successful bad boy English artist who displays taxidermied animals festooned in pearls and sucking vacuum cleaner tubes. The movie holds up for examination and amusement — and then thought and analysis — the pretensions, affectations, and innocent self-delusions of the very very serious artiste.
It’s almost too easy to mock the inhabitants of this world. The hero, Adrian, makes godawful, tuneless, rhythmless music, playing the piano with his elbows, kicking buckets (from the dead weight of the hip, he carefully explains to his percussionist), dropping chains, ripping paper, screeching. He and his two partners are deadly serious about their confrontational caterwauling, which even Adrian’s parents walk out on after only a few minutes. The only outsider to take his music as seriously as he does is Madeleine Gray (see photo to right — I love that look on her face as she happily grooves to Adrian’s barrage of sounds), who runs a very tony, very out there, gallery. Madeleine is passionate about out there art — the outer, the better. Madeleine has different (fake, it turns out) glasses for each outfit — and what outfits! They all squeak and shine. Madeleine invests a lot of energy in crafting just the right setting to show off a work — whether that work is herself or that of an artist her gallery is featuring. Then there’s Adrian’s brother Josh, who gets $10K a pop for his indistinguishable abstract paintings, each of which features a dot or two and blotches of pastels against a white background; these are titled things like “Springrise” and “Summerset.” Hospitals and hotels are snapping these up. Madeleine is faintly contemptuous of them, keeping them in her back room, but they literally pay the rent, because she is committed to displaying noncommercial art. Her latest find is Monroe, who is a minimalist — to say the very least. His works include a pushpin centered in a wall, a rubber doorstop against a door — you get the idea. All of them have those wonderful art gallery title tags, which elucidate and delineate — only not really. (My favorite was “Wall surrounded by space.”) Monroe with his tics and antisocial manner suggests an “outsider” artist. At the opposite end of the artist personality spectrum is the bad boy artist I mentioned above, Ray Barko. Flamboyant, successful, constantly reinventing himself (daily, no, minutely), this character is the closest to a villain in the piece. And the reason for that, I think, is because he is the one who does not really create anything: he has others make his works; he directs the “process.” Finally, there are the clients, or as Madeleine calls them, the collectors. Josh’s works are bought by a very nice lady who really really likes them, and her job is to pick art for public spaces, and so this is what she buys. Until tastes change, and then she opens her own gallery in Nantucket (you can feel Madeleine shiver) where she displays and sells Josh’s work. And, at the other extreme (once again) is the equally unsophisticated hedge fund manager who has lots of money, no taste, no clue, but a profound belief in the premise of “value.” Good art is valuable; it becomes less attractive when it depreciates. Madeleine’s assistant carefully points out to him the better pieces in every show: they’re generally larger, made with more expensive materials, and cost more.
At first, I thought it wasn’t fair to laugh. But then I realized there was no mean-spiritedness in the movie. The filmmakers respect the idea of making art. Whether that art is any good is what’s laughable. But the impulse to create, the discipline to attempt to improve (and for this, there is an absolutely wonderful sequence of shots of the percussionist attempting to get better and better and better, honing and fine-tuning his ability to kick that bucket from the hip), the desire to share — this is all good, and the practitioners are not mocked for this. The laughs come after the creation: this is art?
Which of course raises the question of what IS art? And the fact that the movie raises the question and makes you think is very very good indeed. I found myself remembering our recent trip to the outsider artist museum in Baltimore, the American Visionary Museum. We saw the permanent collection, and I have to say, I had real trouble with what we saw. Is it art when an OCD person draws the same image with minor variations over and over and over and over…? Is a 17 million toothpick version of the Lusitania art? Some of the things we saw were striking, yes, even memorable. But art? I found the museum particularly distressing because its message was, to me, undercut by its gift shop. The gift shop was crammed full of kinky, campy, kitschy baubles and toys and tricks and games. Which made it lots of fun, and I’m sure generates lots of sales, but to me it calls into question the attitude toward the outsiders whose art is (presumably) being respectfully displayed in the museum proper. Am I to take the museum in to to with a nod and a wink? Or am I to adopt some hip, ironic stance? I can’t do that. Either this is art and these are artists, or this is all a joke. It left a bad taste in my mouth, although Julie assures me that the special shows are thoughtful and thought provoking, so maybe we’ll go back — and avoid the gift shop.
I also remembered when we saw Yoko Ono’s art on display at, I think, the Walters. There were her legendary performance art–inspired three-dimensional works like the hammer, with the nails and the instruction to hammer in a nail where you wanted. But — and this is what set me off in peals of giggles — this retrospective labeled the art very clearly “Do Not Touch.” I couldn’t decide if Yoko would laugh or cry at that injunction. I finally decided she’d just shrug and accept the check.