Satires of the art world written by incredulous outsiders are often damned before they begin: there’s virtually no absurdist caricature a screenwriter could invent that could suitably exaggerate its pretentiousness or barely concealed venality—these character flaws are played out daily in earnest. In 2015, a mentally ill attendee at Art Basel Miami Beach stabbed another visitor with an X-Acto knife; it took onlookers a few minutes to realize that the blood was real. At the ARCO Madrid art fair in 2007, members of the more-or-less uncategorizable art organization e-flux—under the heading unitednationsplaza—gathered an international gang of artists, curators, and critics to participate in a self-flagellating mock trial whose charges included colluding with the “new” bourgeoisie. The artist Santiago Sierra has, on several occasions, paid drug addicts and sex workers to tattoo black lines across their backs; Damien Hirst sold a skull encrusted with fourteen million British pounds’ worth of diamonds for fifty million pounds to a consortium of buyers that included himself; Tracey Emin transplanted her unmade bed into the Tate Modern. Art-world satire, in other words, tends to feel ham-fisted because it’s all such low-hanging fruit: it doesn’t take much effort to make contemporary art sound dumb—it’s already dumb, and no inflection is needed.
The newest entry into the canon of bad art-world satires is director Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw, which premiered on Netflix last weekend. All the familiar grotesques are here: greedy gallerists, ruthlessly ambitious assistants, tax-dodging collectors, a critic so accustomed to churning out self-serving aesthetic pronouncements that he can’t help but bitchily opine about a dead colleague’s casket. There are also architectural black outfits, Tom Ford eyeglasses, and capital-h Haircuts marching through sterile white galleries and pristine midcentury houses; people airkiss, backstab, and mistake a pile of trash on the floor for a revolutionary new artwork.
It doesn’t take much effort to make contemporary art sound dumb—it’s already dumb.
But Gilroy adds a genre twist: in Velvet Buzzsaw, the art bites back, taking supernatural revenge on those who would debase it for profit. To introduce the protagonists in all their preening, money-grubbing glory, the film must naturally open at Art Basel. The critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) marches through the aisles casting judgment: a ridiculous animatronic sculpture of a homeless person, HoboMan, on sale for $4 million, barely warrants full sentences from Vandewalt (“Wolfson, female figure, four years ago . . . It’s an iteration. No originality. No courage”); “Sober hasn’t been good for him,” he says of a work by John Malkovich’s washed-up painter Piers. He forms a cozy trio with gallerist Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), whose past life as the frontwoman of the 1980s punk band “Velvet Buzzsaw” lends her highbrow enterprise the frisson of subversiveness. Meanwhile, Toni Collette’s smarmy Gretchen, a curator at the fictional LA Museum of Art, is about to jump ship for a more lucrative career as an art advisor. “The wealthy vacuum up everything,” she tells a giddy Vandewalt, “Why not join the party?”
When the gang returns to Los Angeles, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an assistant at Haze’s gallery, discovers the corpse of her elderly neighbor, a recluse named Vetril Dease who conveniently died without any friends or family to claim his possessions. She sneaks into his apartment—ostensibly motivated by concern for the dead man’s orphaned cat—and finds a trove of so-so paintings that we are meant to believe are heretofore unknown masterpieces. She quietly gathers them up and prepares to strike out on her own, a plan that falls apart when her boss, tipped off by an art handler hoping to curry favor, demands to be cut in. “You’re in way over your head,” Haze tells her. “You have to archive, catalogue, and establish ownership. And monetize. I’m willing to do all of that for a reasonable percentage. You can engage me in an endless lawsuit or become rich.” Of course she chooses the latter.
Indeed, all of the main characters immediately see dollar signs and set about colluding, with various degrees of explicitness, to promote Dease as a newly unearthed visionary: a team of lawyers is brought in to invent legal provenance for the paintings, Josephina is promoted to gallery partner, Vandewalt offers to write a glowing catalogue essay for the gallery’s forthcoming Dease exhibition in exchange for the rights to a book about his life (“an exploration of origin and essence”). Gretchen gets first pick of the paintings for her rich client and strong-arms her former museum into bumping a planned exhibition of emerging artists from the calendar in favor of showing her newly purchased Deases, which will instantly inflate their value. Later, she demands that another recent acquisition—Sphere, a massive interactive sculpture in the form of a metal orb kitted with arm holes and sensors—is thrown in for good measure; her collector wants to defray the sculpture’s presumably exorbitant cost with a tax break by lending it to a non-profit ASAP.
Almost nothing is known of Dease’s history, but it hardly matters; that is, until the paintings start killing people. It turns out that Dease, traumatized by an abusive childhood, was a murderer and had been experimented upon by doctors at a hospital for the criminally insane. His last request was that all his art be destroyed. Somehow—this part is never quite explained—his tortured, violent spirit has literally animated his art, which inflicts punishment on every greedy schemer that crosses it: the art handler is mauled by monkeys from a kitsch gas station canvas while taking a truckload of Dease paintings to storage; a rival dealer is strangled by his foppish scarf as he inspects an installation; Sphere saws off Gretchen’s arm and she bleeds out on the floor of the museum; Josephina is consumed by a graffitied mural after she attempts to convince a young street artist, Damrish, to sell out his East LA collective. Confronting all this carnage, Vandewalt and Haze decide to divest but it’s too late: they, too, meet ludicrously gruesome fates.
As a comment on the art world, Velvet Buzzsaw is too obvious to be interesting—it tries too hard; as a horror film, it’s not quite obvious enough, introducing genre tropes only to keep them at arm’s length. But for a movie so conspicuously unschooled in the insider nuances of the art world (any number of other reviews have tallied its gaffes, the most egregious of which is the assumption that art critics have any power whatsoever), Velvet Buzzsaw manages—I suspect inadvertently—to get at the heart of longstanding debates about art’s nature. Does art manifest the will of its creator or does it have an autonomous existence unbound to the artist’s intention? Does an artwork have a consciousness and a drive of its own, as proponents of the “new materialism” would have it? Are artworks commodities, uncannily animated by the embedded social relations of their production, or something more pure and elemental, unnaturally enslaved by the market? Does every painting save the world in its own way, as titillation-critic Jerry Saltz recently claimed on Twitter? No matter the answers, the only logical conclusion is the same in each case: if artworks are as alive as everyone says, it’s no surprise that they want us dead.