General 8-29-2003

The Column: Hollywood Art Critic, Part I

HOLLYWOOD LIKES A GOOD YARN—especially a tidy tale that’s been telegraphed in advance, hits all the right emotional points, and plays out exactly as expected.

Michael Fallon

Consider the recent hit summer flick Seabiscuit. Never mind that the truth of the story of this 1930s-era race horse—as told in Laura Hillenbrand’s book, on which the movie was based–was much more intriguing than the movie version. The producers/writers/consultants/test audiences couldn’t help but keep the story satisfyingly predictable for the glazed but touchingly unjaded eyes of moviegoers.

The very emotional climax of the film—the race with War Admiral–was a complete put-on. Oh, I don’t mean that the race didn’t happen, and that Seabiscuit didn’t win, but in reality War Admiral’s owner didn’t exactly shy away from the challenge, as the movie implied. Both War Admiral’s and Seabiscuit’s owners attempted to gain advantage by setting and canceling the meeting for over a year, and in fact Seabiscuit cancelled more races with War Admiral than the other way around.

Even more egregious a falsehood is Seabiscuit’s depiction as a tiny colt up against the majestic and massive War Admiral. Though the real War Admiral was the more stately and beautiful animal, Seabiscuit was actually the heavier horse. What was odd about Seabiscuit was his shape—he had short splayed legs, and a wide massive chest; but he certainly was no puny runt, and this was no David vs. Goliath race. And, absolute truth be told, Seabiscuit and War Admiral were actually close relatives. War Admiral’s sire, Man o’ War, was Seabiscuit’s grandsire—making War Admiral half-uncle to Seabiscuit. None of this was revealed in the simple underdog-makes-good sweep of the Hollywood plot.

Our culture today is pre-programmed to expect Hollywood-style narrative. There is little room for messy exposition or explanation. I have to believe this is what’s behind the gubernatorial candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger in my home state of California. Why else would a guy with no experience and few qualifications suddenly be a front runner in the race to govern the biggest state in the nation? It’s all for the sake of the story—Arnold, the humble immigrant with a dream. Arnold, the boy who overcame his father’s fascist past. Arnold, the party boy who made good (Married a Shriver! Rules the cutthroat world of Hollywood!). Even Gray Davis recognized the Tinseltown quality of the race., He said on August 15: “This election has turned into a Hollywood movie, and I assure you it will have a surprise ending.”

Simple stories seduce us—just ask your average Minnesotan who got sucked into the bad-boy-made-good narrative of the Jesse Ventura show. No need to remind you that the movie didn’t turn out as had been advertised, and our fair frozen state was left with a pretty bad taste in its collective mouth once his term ended. The real world often trumps the fantasy narrative.

“SO WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ART, Mr. Art Critic Man?” you ask.
Well, I’ll tell ya. I’ve been wondering lately why art gets so little play in the national discourse despite the ever-growing number of people claiming to be artists. To cite some statistics, the most recent population survey revealed that in the U.S. in 2001 there were 2,108,000 people who claimed as their primary career one of the 11 artist occupational categories established by the National Endowment for the Arts. This equaled 9.8 percent of the labor force—nearly one out of every ten worker in this country. In comparison, engineers and surveyors accounted for 2,145,000 U.S. workers, and scientists/mathematicians/computer scientists accounted for 2,685,000. If you add in the extra 315,000 workers who were employed in secondary jobs as artists, and the 88,000 artists who were unemployed, we end up with a whopping 2,511,000 million American artists cluttering the labor force!

Yet despite the numbers, artists have relatively little national cachet. Ask anyone off the street to name a favorite living artist and you’ll no doubt get a blank look. Ask anyone to name the latest contestant to be eliminated on The Bachelor, meanwhile, or, more to the point, to converse about the differences between the porn peddler and the ex-porn star who are running for California’s governor, and you’ll be in business.

More and more I think this loss of prestige in the fine arts—even as the practice of them has grown exponentially–has to do with the Hollywoodification of our culture. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at art over the years, grappling with the complicated issues and trying to describe them to an audience, and I, and the sixteen people who read my writing, get satisfaction out of this. But the rest of the world, I’ve come to realize, just doesn’t care. Art doesn’t make a sexy enough story. Sure, there are exceptions–Picasso, Warhol, Pollock, Kahlo–but not every artist lives a made-for-Hollywood life, despite what Hollywood would have you believe. Artmaking is a rather mundane and tedious (read: unsexy) practice on the whole.

What’s an art-lover to do then?

I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit tired of butting my head up against the wall of Hollywood. If you can’t convince ’em otherwise, I figure, you might as well pander to ’em. So, below is my working draft for all of my future artist profiles. I can only hope this offering will help make art more palatable in this age.

Profile of Artist X :

Artist X is standing on the verge of a great (choose one) dilemma/chasm/turning point/hitch on the road to fame. It is _______ (list time of day) in the (choose one) noisy/stultifyingly hot/rather placid/dirty confines of ________ (list place). Artist X is (choose one) pensive/nervous/eager/ambivalent about the tasks that face him/her as we watch the (choose one) people/cars/wildlife/clouds pass by.
But this isn’t the first (choose one) obstacle/opportunity of this sort the ________(list age)-year-old artist has faced. In fact, Artist X is used to the (choose one) ambivalence/hostility/snide mockery/jeering of society at large. “I can’t count how often I was (choose one) misunderstood/mistreated/ underestimated/dismissed as I was learning to (choose one) sculpt/take photos/paint in the Telemark style of Norwegian rosemaling/be a performance artist,” he/she says, as we hear the distant and (choose one) plaintive/harsh and edgy/warbly/sonorous strains of (choose one) Eminem/Tori Amos/Jewel/Johnny Cash from someone’s (choose one) car radio/boom box/open window/bar mitzvah.
“There was only one person who ever believed in me, despite that I suffered from (choose one) dyslexia/a profound lack of self-confidence/ a horrible physical disfigurement/ rickets,” Artist X continued, looking once at a photo of his/her (choose one) cross-dressing roommate/dog/imaginary friend/great aunt Esther before (choose one) releasing it in the wind/tossing it into the river/setting fire to it/placing it on a ritual altar. “He/she always told me that my work would eventually reach (choose one) the Whitney Biennial/a Paris gallery/the White House front lawn/the Edina Galleria…. And now I have a chance to prove that he/she was right.” &c…

Am I ready for Hollywood or what?