The Art of Doing It is a movie for those who haven’t paid attention
If you’re an avid reader of this website*, this won’t shock you (if not, are you seated?), but the art world is currently facing a myriad of issues of exploitation, unequal pay , sexism, racism, ableism, and much more, often at multiple intersecting systemic and institutional levels. For those who haven’t been following, the new documentary The art of making it serves as a reasonably useful primer on the situation. While it doesn’t break any formal ground, director Kelcey Edwards and her team had a decent level of access to artists, critics, teachers, buyers and collectors of varying backgrounds and status. There are newcomers like Gisela McDaniel, established veterans like Andrea Bowers, and plenty in between like Sebastian Errazuriz and Felipe Baeza, all are given fairly equal weight and attention. But while the film exposes many problems, it does so with little depth, and its proposed solutions are sorely lacking.
The film shares a producer with the 2018 doc The price of everything and sometimes feels like a spiritual companion or sequel. Nathaniel Kahn’s film delved into the financialization of the art world, how in contemporary times expensive works are often just one type of asset among many for those who buy them and sell, with aesthetic concerns and meaning taking precedence in the backseat. By examining what it is like to be a working artist right now, Edwards shows us the consequences of this paradigm. His findings are, again, familiar to anyone who has paid attention, but sobering nonetheless. With all the money concentrated at the top and no support for artists at the bottom, it’s nearly impossible to even be a working artist anymore. Galleries and museums have no answers (and often little or no interest in finding them), and the utility of MFAs and other institutional avenues of advancement seems increasingly questionable.
The film’s approach to its subject matter is rather sparse, as it jumps from idea to idea with flimsy justification – the all-too-common non-fiction “tick-the-box” approach. Some of his interviews seem like wasted opportunities; Helen Molesworth contributes little besides dropping concise one-line descriptors of other characters and events as they are mentioned. Critics in general are invoked for fairly broad platitudes. At one end of the spectrum, Dave Hickey is grumpy and cynical, while at the other end, Jerry Saltz offers encouraging but extremely generic advice to young artists. “Creativity is in every bone of our body. It is one of the most advanced operating systems our species has ever invented. Alright, thanks Jerry. (Saltz’s affirmative quote is featured in the promotion for the film, which resembles this image of Obama awarding himself a medal.)
These mixed messages are emblematic of how the The panoply of the documentary can sometimes seem more confused than eclectic. This is particularly acute when establishment figures like Brooklyn Museum Director Anne Pasternak discuss institutional issues, bringing more than a whiff of “We’re all trying to find the guy who did this!” (Please forgive my second meme reference in as many paragraphs.) Although it is rather impressive that Stefan Simchowitz can instantly bring an unpleasant chill to a room even if he only enters it via your TV screen.
A continued refusal to delve into the details frustrates The art of doing it. A major subplot follows Chris Watts, who was fired from the MFA program at Yale after just one year, and the film is eerily vague about why and how this happened. With a few exceptions, like with McDaniel, the film doesn’t do much to explore the actual works created by the artists, which would seem to contradict its own ethos. A recurring stumbling block is that while many interviewees discuss the need for reform in this medium, few can offer an idea of what it might look like. (I would argue that you can’t solve the structural problems inherent in capitalism through approaches based on the same set of assumptions, but I’m just a humble critic.) That’s the problem with “disruption” as that concept – it’s vague, and the people who talk about it can often only point to technological solutionism, which has only ever made things worse. And of course, the film is joining the NFT, and is now coming out after having already been widely discredited. That the doc is already dated in this way does not bode well for its authority.
The art of making it is available to stream on various VOD platforms.
*Hyperallergics are actually cameos via quotes as contextual visuals to news headlines in the documentary, so hopefully we’ve been a helpful resource for filmmakers.