“Velvet Buzzsaw,” a satirical horror-show sendup of the art world, isn’t a good film, but like a lot of mediocre films, it contains a trove of meaningful anthropological data. It neither accurately depicts nor analyzes the contradictions and pathologies of America’s relationship with high art, but it is a symptom of them. If you know anything about the art world, you will groan more than you laugh. But every groan is a teachable moment.
The film, written and directed by Dan Gilroy and streaming on Netflix, is getting some buzz for its starry cast, including Jake Gyllenhaal as a cynical but influential art critic, Rene Russo as a tough-as-nails gallerist and John Malkovich as a slightly lost but serious artist trying to figure out his next move in the competitive, blue-chip art market. Art critics will be amused at the absurdity of Gyllenhaal’s character, Morf Vandewalt, who is good looking, physically fit, fashionably dressed, comfortably rich and happily bisexual, and basks in universal adulation while disposing intellectual-sounding flapdoodle with airy confidence. Most absurd: Morf has a godlike power to make or break careers, a power that hasn’t existed in the art world in decades (if it ever did, a debatable proposition).
Gilroy uses the world of celebrity-clogged art fairs, crowded gallery openings and cutthroat backroom deals as an analogue for anxieties that are fashionable in Hollywood. What does it mean to sell out? Is it possible to balance the demands of art and the exigencies of commerce? The film’s title, “Velvet Buzzsaw,” refers to a rock band in which our rich and successful gallerist once played, the logo for which is tattooed on her neck. It signifies the nostalgia for a creative, carefree past about which everyone in the entertainment business has a fantasy, whether they actually had a creative, carefree past. If they ever have qualms about the fortunes they’ve made selling drivel to the masses, they need merely flagellate themselves for having lost touch with their own Velvet Buzzsaw, and in a trice, all is atoned.
Gilroy’s elision of the art world with Hollywood leads to at least one substantial misrepresentation. The art world may be full of poseurs, pretentious twits, rapacious entrepreneurs and the forces of corporate homogenization, but in key ways, it is still a different social and economic world than the movie business. Art is not submitted to the instant evaluation of a vast, heterogenous audience. Success in the art world is gathered and accumulated. Social contacts and entree are essential, but neither is a guarantee of fame and riches. Some of the judgments — by curators, critics (both mainstream and academic) and gallery owners — may seem capricious and unaccountable, and often they are deeply influenced by things that have nothing to do with the art itself. But those judgments are a collective product of a discrete social world and are subject to ongoing evaluation and reconsideration. It is rare that any artist gains and sustains the instant benediction of the entire art world.
And yet that’s what happens in Gilroy’s film, when a young gallery assistant discovers an apartment full of unknown work by a recently deceased artist named Ventril Dease, a psychotic loner who left behind a huge tranche of paintings mostly in the style of Francis Bacon. These works electrify Morf and his colleagues throughout the art world, spur the jealous admiration of other artists and are instantly successful with collectors. A film that began with the possibility of some sharp social observation is quickly rerouted down a familiar Hollywood path: the idea of genius, troubled genius, transformative genius, supernatural genius.
America’s love of genius is the tribute it pays to art, for which it otherwise has little use. Genius isn’t just a matter of superlative talent, insight or creativity — it’s also destructive. It doesn’t build on the work that came before, but annihilates it. We fetishize genius because it is too much work to figure out the complicated, often technical and sometimes arcane discourse of art, or music or science. And so, no surprise, the works of Ventril Dease turn out to have occult and murderous powers. As people start dying in horrific ways, the film devolves into something little better than a teen slasher flick, with the art world standing in for the snooty sorority girls who get their well-deserved comeuppance.
This is a perfect film for the age of Donald Trump, a revenge fantasy perpetrated against elites, who are caricatured as venal, corrupt and beyond redemption. And despite a few attempts on the director’s part to distinguish authentic art from his parody of art as a vast con game, the film ends on a profoundly anti-art note.
Spoiler alerts are for children, so if you have an infantile relation to narrative, read no further. The film ends with the gallerist desperate to save herself, so she purges all art from her house, a gesture many in America might well favor. A final, brief epilogue invokes the usual cliches of the horror film: A few stray pieces of Ventril Dease’s work are still circulating, sold on a street corner to a couple of unsuspecting hipsters. The horror will continue.
In less than two hours, a film that started off criticizing art as a commodity lands on a profoundly more nihilistic view: Art is a corruption, a taint, a kind of virus in society. Accidentally, clumsily and without much artistry, the film yields a truth: The entertainment industry loathes art and can’t help but slander it. The ideological position is entrenched and reflexive, and in fundamental conformity with the darkest social forces in our society.
Perhaps that explains the animus, so visceral, so steeped in Hollywood’s deepest fears and self-loathing. Success, in the art world, is still a matter of persuasion, argument and, yes, influence and networking. A lot of bogus work will get through the process, but some great work emerges, too, and some artists still forge meaningful relationships with people who care about art. Success in Hollywood is like success in any industry, from fast food to cars: dictated solely by the numbers, and slave to a vast, faceless audience for which one often senses directors have more than a little contempt.