Monday, February 11, 2019

Velvet Buzzsaw and the True Horror of Making Money Off Art

Warning: Spoilers

Velvet Buzzsaw (out on Netflix) is what you get when you mash a satire of the art world with a straight-up horror movie. In it, a treasure trove of art made by a mysterious dead man is discovered by an ambitious gallery receptionist named Josephina (Zawe Ashton). When art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) deems the work to be “the next big thing,” everyone scrambles to cash in. Unfortunately, the art is cursed and soon the paintings begin killing off anyone who gets their hands on it.

The movie is weird, but I liked it. Perhaps, because I like art. I’m not someone who studies art in depth, but I do go to museums and galleries and take an amateurish pleasure in all the weird paintings, sculptures, and displays, some I get, some I don’t, some that move me, some that don’t. 

What is art? What is the artist trying to express? I don’t know, but I like it. Velvet Buzzsaw is filled with art that harkens to that off-color sensibility, from a hobo superhero robot to an audio experience of whale sounds to the ghoulish cursed paintings themselves.

The movie creatively tries to mash genres, which I appreciate, even if I found the horror aspect of Velvet Buzzsaw a little lackluster. There’s blood and gore, but the deaths weren’t particularly scary or suspenseful or shocking—aside from the very last death, which I found gruesome and a little surprising.

Fortunately, the satire elements are stronger. The movie breaks down how art is bought and sold, speculated on and commodified. Art critic, Morf, determines whether art has value or not, casually tearing down any art that doesn’t meet his standards. Gallery owner, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), uses underhanded tactics to secure art and keep it scarce to up the value. Art advisor Gretchen (Toni Collette) buys pieces for her millionaire client and browbeats museums into displaying it for “tax purposes.” The process is incredibly cynical. The art may have started as pieces of genuine emotion and fascination, but they end as luxury items, whose value is determined largely by perception.

This comes at a very human cost. Piers (John Malkovich) is an artist undergoing an extreme “Writer’s Block.” Morf jokes he hasn’t produced a good painting since he got sober—a remark echoes this myth of the “tortured” artist, that only someone with a severe problem can produce “true” art. Sadly, Piers overhears this comment. The art world clearly doesn’t care about him as a person but only what he can produce. He’s a factory (cough, Andy Warhol, cough) expected to churn out heart-breaking works of staggering genius. It breaks his spirit.

Now I’m a writer, so I sympathize with the plight of the artist. But I also recognize the need to make money. In theory, it’s nice to have a system with multiple people who help you by explaining how your work has value (the art critic), getting your work to an audience (the gallery owner), and selling your art for a nice paycheck (the art advisor). But at what point does that system turn against you? At what point does it destroy the thing it’s supposed to be championing?

This is where the horror elements come in—striking back at the system and restoring a sense of balance. It does this by gruesomely killing everyone who takes part in the commodification of art. In theory, we’re supposed to hate all the characters who turn art into big bucks—it makes their deaths so much more satisfying. But I don’t—not all of them, anyway.

For example, I found myself sympathizing with Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, the art critic Morf. He seems almost unable to stop judging, going so far as to criticize the color of a coffin at a funeral. (Anyone else have an inner critic that won’t shut up? I sure do.) Yet he is genuinely stirred by the cursed art and cares about his friends once he realizes their lives are in danger. At one point, his critiques are echoed back to him, and he can hear the way his words tear down the artist. He seems disturbed, tortured by his words, as if its finally occurred to him that he’s been killing the thing he loves.

But it was the final scene that lingered in my mind. After all the death and destruction, a homeless person finds the cursed paintings, displays them on a chain link fence, and sells one to a couple for $5. In a more traditional horror movie, this represents the scene where the monster comes back to life to terrorize a new crop of victims. Except—I didn’t actually fear for the homeless person or the couple buying the pictures.

Instead, I felt that this scene was the purest expression of the meeting of art and commerce. Here the process is stripped of all pretentions. The people buying the art just like it. The person selling the art is just trying to survive. And, for whatever reason, it was this idea that stirred me, because after seeing art become a speculative object, we saw it return to art.

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