PRINT May 2006


Art School Confidential

I JUST NEED to get out of here and become a famous artist and everything else will fall into place, Jerome, the innocent, Picasso-identified young hero of Art School Confidential, must be thinking as the cute girl he’s just sketched in the high school cafeteria admires his work—then clicks off with her hunky boyfriend. Based on Daniel Clowes’s comic and screenplay, Terry Zwigoff’s hilarious faux exposé chronicles the growing pains of artistes-in-training at the “Strathmore Institute.”

“What kind of college has a naked chick for a teacher?” a bully mocks Jerome, poring over the school’s brochure. “She’s an art model, you stupid ape,” Jerome snaps back. The Beavis type is impressed. Erotic and artistic success intermingle throughout this strangely retro yet uncannily spot-on portrait of the artist as an undergrad. Strangely retro not only due to its pulp fiction–esque conceit, complete with “Strathmore Strangler” menacing campus, but because the sex roles are in a ’50s time warp, despite the blue hair, piercings, and gays. The chicks are cast as the guy-artist’s “perfect subject,” love/lust object, Oedipal bait (daughter of the Famous-Artist-he-wants-to-replace), or femme fatale, as in the beautiful (and insane) “beatnik art-chick of your dreams.” An older type is the soigné art maven–enabler (played by Anjelica Huston in all-black ensemble and arty necklace, showing slides and asking a lecture hall full of stoners, “What is Art?”). The guy characters are caricatures too, but the “dolls” in this otherwise contemporary art scene are insidiously creepy. Perhaps a residue of Clowes’s lonely-slacker-guy comics of the ’90s, where chicks were clearly projections of his insecurities, this droll satire on the art world interpellated moi as yet another cliché, the “feminist” critic who feels compelled to point this out.

That said, Jerome (Max Minghella) is a cutie whose bad luck with the ladies—even “art skanks”—is the rare false note in this sneaky peek at the petri dish where art larvae are cultivated. A veteran art student with a severe case of “been there, done that” syndrome, Bardo (Joel David Moore) takes our ingénue under his wing. Admittedly a “living cliché [like everybody else],” he catalogues their classmates: “Look, you’ve got the the vegan holy man, the boring blowhard, the angry lesbian . . . ‘Kiss Ass’” . . . and there’s always “Mom,” the empty-nester “ready to explore her creative side.”

Their mentor figures are less appetizing. Uncelebrated, Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich) has been plugging away at the teaching gig and his triangle paintings for twenty-five years. “I was one of the first,” he ruefully informs Jerome. A successful Strathmore grad returns as Visiting Artist, flings insults, and displays his “true nature” as a fully self-actualized “asshole,” to thunderous applause. A world-weary foil for Jerome, who confesses he wants “to be a great artist . . . you know, if possible,” Bardo turns him on to Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), a bitter alum who hates the world and even mocks Jerome’s hero, “Pick-asshole!” Now devoted to tippling, TV, and masturbating in his squalid dump, Jimmy protects his artistic integrity: “What do you think an artist cares about? . . . Fine wines and black-tie affairs? No! He lives only for that narcotic moment of creative bliss! A moment that may come once a decade or never at all!” To get ahead, he advises, “you really need to take some lessons in sucking cock and licking ass! Otherwise you might find yourself rotting away in some shithole.”

At Strathmore, Jerome sees mere draftsmanship is no match for pc maneuvering and bullbleeping prowess in our post-skill art world. Sandiford’s assignments yield classic art school sight gags: One fellow Polaroids his own testicles; another rolls in green paint, hurls himself at the canvas, then writhes on the ground in pain; another scrawls, WE LIVE IN A POLICE STATE. At the crit, Sandiford prods as the students engage the half-baked work with earnest spiels about intention and process. Jerome’s skillful, realistic portrait, the vegan complains, looks “like it was done by a machine.”

Jerome is smitten with the blonde life-drawing model—miraculously, the same dream girl depicted in the brochure. Audrey (Sophia Myles) also happens to be the daughter of a Famous Artist, dazzling the suburban-bred Jerome with her hooked-upness as well as her tush. When she compares the portrait he did of her in class to one of Marie-Thérèse Walter—Picasso’s muse—he is certain he’s found his “perfect subject,” the royal road to his “true voice” as an artist: a hot muse who sees him as he wants to be seen. You know, Picasso-like.

His rival emerges, the class “weirdo”—a normal-looking jock whose simplistic paintings of sports cars blow away the teacher and the predictably freaky art students, who hail him as “totally original” and “outside the box.” Worse, he snags Audrey. Without giving away any more of the plot, suffice it to say that desperation leads Jerome to find his hitherto elusive “true voice”—and to become a symptom. In despair, he acts out, winds up in jail, and takes a shortcut to Famous Artist, obsessively cranking out tableaux of his “perfect subject,” Audrey, in his jail cell­/studio for a hotshot dealer who sells them like hotcakes and scolds the lawyer who rashly wants to “free” Jerome: “Do you know how many paintings I can sell for your client while this is going on?” Even some “guy from Artforum really wants to talk to [him].”

“It is well to remember from time to time,” said the pedagogue Oscar Wilde, “that nothing worth knowing can be taught.” While seduction and self-promotion are not part of the curriculum, our hero nevertheless gets ahead when he is reckless enough to bypass aesthetics and become “himself”: desperate for validation. In this bildungsroman/cliché-fest, our hero gets his fairy-tale ending, at an unexpected price. In the post-Warhol world, where publicity confuses art and crap, being a “famous” artist matters more than making “great art.” Hilarious.

Rhonda Lieberman is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Art School Confidential opens nationally this month.