Review: ‘Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World’

Hot Docs 2017

7 mins read

Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World
(Canada, 80 min.)
Dir. Barry Avrich
Programme: Artscapes (Canadian Premiere)


Oh, this business of art. The world of fine art often has a tenuous relationship between commercial value and cultural worth. Blurred Lines tackles the slippery nature of the culture/commerce divide as director Barry Avrich (Quality Balls) weighs the values of the two sides of the art world and finds the scales out of balance. Avrich explores the art world from a multitude of angles in this engaging and entertaining doc that boasts an impressive breadth of insight and access to top players in one of the most prestigious and exclusive tiers of the art world.

Blurred Lines asks what drives value in today’s art scene. The contemporary angle is key here since Avrich hones in on a relatively new phenomenon: the commercialisation of fine art for prestige and investment. This trend, moreover, amplifies with modern art. Classic works like Picasso paintings and Rembrandts will inevitably fetch a pretty penny thanks to their enduring cultural value, but Avrich’s cast of knowledgeable talking heads in Blurred Lines largely attribute the accelerated business to contemporary art.

Clips from a palette of films like Herbert Ross’s Play it Again, Sam, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat poke fun at the range of poseurs who populate the art world. A number of these insincere “enthusiasts” gab about art with empty rhetoric, gibberish and feigned accents, and Avrich shows a great sense of humour about how art imitates life when it comes to the vultures who feed off culture.

The doc is plentiful in the range of examples of works under discussion The pop art of Jeff Koons or the edgy dead animals of Damien Hirst are more about branding and buzz than anything else. Ironic hipster paintings and my-kid-could-paint-that phony “art” fetch oodles at auctions simply because the contemporary scene has no built-in controls. Essentially, the selling price on newer pieces is simply dictated by whatever the market will bear.

Avrich finds some big names to join the debate. Contemporary artist Marina Abramović emphasises integrity and the personal creative value of an artist’s work. As Abramović discusses her work, Avrich offers a range of images exemplifying her performance-based style, like making eye contact with art patrons and crying or slathering James Franco in sticky goop. Interviewees in the film point out that she is a rare case of the artist as celebrity. (So, of course, are Koons and Hirst, which complicates matters.) Even Abramović’s eccentricity and singularity is commodified and popularised in the feeding frenzy of contemporary art.

Julian Schnabel, the painter turned Oscar-nominated filmmaker (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), also joins the discussion to share his evolution as an artist. At the same time, other talking heads suggest that Schnabel might have diminished his potential by over-extending his reach. Blurred Lines asks if an artist’s worth depends on the size of his or her product line: like Steamwhistle beer, must an artist simply do one thing really, really well over a long period of time?

Avrich’s insider’s view looks at the many players who contribute to the commercial value of a work of art: the dealers, the auction houses, the collectors, the artists, the museums, the critics, the intermediaries, and the tastemakers. The players speak of the business with a tone that varies depending on their roles. Emerging artists talk somewhat naively about “wanting a good home for their work” without much concern for profits. (There are no starving artists to be found in this doc!) Experienced curators and collectors allude to a new tone of vulgarity in the art scene, and auction houses offer a mix of PR spin and statements that contradict those of their peers. Everyone has a different stake in raising the value of art and it’s clear that they all manipulate the climate to sweeten the pot.

What’s amazing, though, is that Avrich finds such a complex discussion in the appraisal of art not for its quality but for its commercial value. Blurred Lines uncovers a nasty business where art is much like real estate: investors “flip” the art in rapid turnarounds to make a quick buck, while sellers and agents add cultural capital to works by ensuring that buyers with recognisable names or clout acquire the art. A painting, one collector says, gains little value in a transaction if Joe from Boise, Idaho buys it and hangs it in his living room, but few people in Blurred Lines talk about art as if it’s made for edification or posterity.

Avrich intuitively parallels the relatively recent unwieldiness of the art scene to the contemporary capitalist backdrop in which it emerged. The economic meltdown of 2008 reverberates in the sketchy dealings of the art scene and Blurred Lines ultimately asks if these transactions are as criminal as the dirty trades of, say Lehman Brothers, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Without proper scrutinising of regulation and penalties for players who break the rules, art, like commerce, can only sustain itself for so long before everything collapses. But at least the contemporary art world can spin the rubble into something worthy of a price tag.

Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World screens:
-Friday, April 28 at TIFF Lightbox at 7:00 PM
-Saturday, April 29 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema at 1:00 PM
-Sunday, May 7 at the Isabel Bader at 11:00 AM

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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