Exploring the Lines Between Art, Hype and Biz

Exploring the Lines Between Art, Hype and Biz (photo)

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“I had reservations about making art a business,” the famous art collector Mary Boone once said. “But I got over it.”

Such is the tension within all artistic industries — film, painting, theater or music, the idea of selling-out dogs them all. Are the high prices that paintings go for at Sotheby’s or films sell for at Sundance indicative of their success, or their impurity? And how do you distinguish the “true” art from the art that’s just hyped? Do the two have to be mutually exclusive?

The recent documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” takes up these questions and then some. Ever since its “surprise” Sundance premiere in January, the film has generated a considerable amount of attention. Supposedly directed by British street-art provocateur Banksy — famous for his political and controversial acts of graffiti, such as painting on Israel’s West Bank Barrier — much of the buzz has circled around questions of the film’s veracity: Was the film’s protagonist, a French videomaker-turned-artist named Thierry Guetta, just a fabrication? Was the entire project yet another infamous Banksy prank?

But whether the film is real or staged or somewhere in between misses the point: “Exit Through the Gift Shop” — as its title suggests — is ultimately a lacerating critique on the commercialization of art, making it the latest in a new wave of documentaries that focus on the struggles of artists and art aficionados to define the value of art in a world dominated by profit motives and capitalist enterprise. As the recently released “The Art of The Steal” makes strikingly apparent in its chronicle of Philadelphia’s power grab of a private collection of impressionist masterworks, art is big business.

It’s no surprise that Banksy also raises the ugly specter of art’s commodification in his debut film. After his works sold at Sotheby’s in 2007 for record-breaking amounts for a young artist, he posted a painting of an auction house on his website with the caption, “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”

04192010_mykid.jpgOne could pose a similar question to the patrons of abstract expressionist artist Marla Olmstead, the four-year-old painter at the center of Amir Bar-Lev’s 2007 documentary “My Kid Could Paint That.” Like “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” which contrasts art that’s heralded as legitimate (from Banksy) with work that is depicted as a rip-off (by Guetta), Bar-Lev’s film addresses a similar conflict. Are Olmstead’s paintings true expressions of childhood genius, or is her art guided by her father, an amateur painter, and then exploited for profit as the work of a prodigy?

2006’s “Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?” starts with a matching quandary. The film opens with an image of an abstract expressionist painting and the voiceover: “Is this a genuine honest-to-god no-doubt-about-it American masterpiece, possibly worth up to $50 million? Maybe.” In a former female truck driver’s quest to make millions off an alleged Pollock she bought at a thrift shop, the film explores the ambiguities inherent in the validation of a piece of art. While art experts claim the painting is a cheap knock-off, the woman and her family hire forensic scientists to prove the work to be Pollock’s based on fingerprint analysis. Despite the high-brow art world’s unwavering refusal to acknowledge the art as legitimate, bids for the drip painting go from $2 million to $9 million. (As of last reporting, the painting was still awaiting higher offers.)

Ultimately, “Exit,” “Kid” and “Pollock” leave the question of their art’s authenticity up for the audience to decide — it’s actually this ambiguity that helps construct the films’ central conflicts and mysteries. But by the movies’ final frames, a few things become clear: quality art is difficult to define, the people who buy it (and buy into it) are often ignorant about what makes it worthwhile, and the background of the artists may be more important to observers and consumers than the artwork itself. There may be no more ironic display of such misguided celebrification and misunderstanding of art than the array of young L.A. hipster-fashionistas in “Exit” captured on camera declaring brand-new art-star Guetta’s laughably derivative debut show “a revelation.”

04192010_pollock.jpgThese issues are nothing new in the art world, of course. “It’s always been there,” says arts journalist David D’Arcy. “You’re not just selling a work of art for what it is; you’re selling it as an abstract painting by a child. It’s not so different from selling a painting by a serial killer. You’re selling an autograph,” continues D’Arcy. “When Basquiat died of an overdose in 1988, it had to be his shrewdest career move. Modigliani, Frida Kahlo, same thing. You can sell martyrdom. Would these pictures mean anything if we didn’t have the biography? It’s almost like having the footnotes.”

If personality has supplanted quality, who gets to determinate art’s “quality” in the first place? Or to borrow the title of another recent doc, about Henry Geldzahler, the Met’s first curator of contemporary art, “Who Gets to Call It Art?”


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.