New York

“The Business of Being an Artist,” directed by Dieter Froese and Kay Hines

Just Above Midtown

Projects which concern themselves with the wild and crazy (yet somberly romantic) world of art are usually humorlessly cloying homages: self-appointed executors of a demiarchic kind of bohemian royalty. Emerging out of the PBS/Bloomie’s presentational phylum, they approach their objects with an awe usually reserved for the landing of a mother ship. We are shown artists stalking their studios with the prowess of a noble savage at a theme park. What is sorely needed is a more critical survey of esthetic practice, one that places artistic activity in a broader context of economic and educational constructs. The Business of Being an Artist is a very tentative step in this direction.

A smorgasbord of talking heads, statistics, rock ’n’ roll, quick cuts, complaints, dumbness, and self-congratulatory aplomb, the film offers the quaintly interesting (or uninteresting) personality portraits that are a staple of much art-world reportage, then fast-forwards into the psyches of some of Easeltown’s brightest lights and others whose batteries are badly in need of a recharge. Artists, dealers, curators, critics, and editors are juxtaposed, their comments frequently accompanied by a chorus ranging from David Byrne whining “Artists Only” to Michael Jackson’s “Got to Be Starting Something.” The responses to the question of the murky confluence of art and business alternate between smug polemic and honest-to-goodness, artsy-humble-pie stammering, from David Hammons’ self-serious “art is not a business; question answered,” to Robert Longo’s no-nonsense “art is a business; there’s no use in not acknowledging it,” to Paul Maenz’s warning that “artists should stay away from dealers until dealers come to them.” (Of course the dealer is right, that is the way things work; unfortunately, most artists would be in a geriatric ward by the time most dealers decided to pay them a visit.) The narrator, John Wessel of the National Endowment for the Arts, informs us that the art market boasts a volume of $5.6 million and has a mighty effect on the economy of New York City. He questions whether artists’ marketing skills should rival their artistic skills. Some dealers praise the gallery construct as a protector of the work of art while others facetiously rebuke it as a “left-over 19th-century-gentlemen’s business.” Critics talk about the importance of participating in a dialogue, while editors allude to criticism as an autonomous exercise. Curators complain that critics hardly look at work and extract their judgments from cursory, hieroglyphic, on-the-spot jottings. Leon Golub sums things up by suggesting that the motor that runs the entire rigmarole is sheer manipulation, and that this kind of choreographic function dictates not only the exchange of money for goods but also the look of the goods, the look and feel of value.

The look of The Business of Being an Artist, the way its cast of characters is presented, is also not without effect. Quick cuts, from talking heads to graffiti artists, abound. A number of interviewees are pictured only in profile, gabbing a mile a minute with their eyes averted from us. Perhaps most interestingly placed is Lucy Havelock-Allan of Sotheby’s. Perched smack beneath a Kenneth Noland target painting, her fair locks gently grazing the bull’s-eye, she demurely suggests that what with Jasper Johns selling for a million, everything else seems like a bargain. Clearly Froese and Hines home in on this comment to foreground economic determinants, to focus on the inextricable linkage between the “successfully creative” and profitability. But while they accomplish much through critically implicit editing, moments like this seem to beg for a more explicit commentary, not a voiceover of the documentarian or of some kind of staid guardian of propriety, but rather a sort of outrageous speaking of the unspoken—a comedic critical swipe at a deserving line. Yet The Business of Being an Artist is clearly a cut above most atelier flackery in its insistence in situating the “creative act” in a broad social field and in recognizing its commodifiable attributes. This is the kind of project that should find its way to a television audience, but considering network TV’s masterpiece mania, that seems a highly unlikely prospect.

Barbara Kruger