7 Documentaries That Give the Finger to the Art World

Who gets to decide the price of art? These documentaries suggest that nobody should.

documentaries about the art world exit through the gift shop
Producers Distribution Agency

Documentary cinema has a lot of stories about the art world. It’s not surprising, really. Readings or lectures about art can be tedious to the average viewer, and fiction film often has trouble jazzing up the subject, but the standard model of doc filmmaking is ideal for conveying facts and concepts while keeping the audience engaged. Still, such films usually struggle to attract an audience, and it’s not hard to figure out why — art is usually seen as a stodgy field, fit only for snobs. And given how deep the ties run between fine art and the whims of the upper class, this is not an entirely unreasonable stereotype.

This makes it particularly funny when someone comes along to upset the fruit cart. Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman’s new film, Art and Craft, demonstrates what happened when museums discovered one forger who only donated and never sold his fakes. In that spirit of rabble-rousing, here are a few more that come in a similar vein. These are films that refuse to play by the art world’s rules. In one way or another (and sometimes unintentionally!), they lay bare the eccentricities and hypocrisies that fuel this sheltered sphere of rich collectors and stodgy institutions.

F for Fake (1974)

One of Orson Welles’s last projects, this freewheeling cinematic essay starts as an interrogation of famed forger Elmyr de Hory’s career before spiraling off into various explorations of the nature of art and authenticity. Welles is keeping company with a host of other “fakers,” mainly his fellow actors and directors, suggesting that there’s not too much of a difference between deception and “real” art. Besides de Hory, Clifford Irving, another huckster who embarrassed the elites (and author of the infamous fake Howard Hughes biography), talks about his craft. And de Hory points out that the art dealers he worked with gouged a lot more out of people than he ever did — the cancer is within these institutions, not outside it.

Who the *$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (2006)

What’s the difference between a canvas splattered in paint that’s worth $5 and a canvas splattered in paint that’s worth $50 million? The former was made by a no-name, while the latter was made by someone the mainstream knows and loves. This is the basis for all value that is assigned to works of art, and it’s completely absurd when you think about it. At no point in any of the many, many arguments in this film over a painting that is possibly a lost Jackson Pollock is the question of whether it’s good addressed. All that matters is whether Pollock made it. At one point, someone asserts, with no irony, that it plainly does not have “the soul of a Pollock.” These people are squabbling over names, not art.

My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

On a related note to the previous entry: if a grown man paints up some expressionist work, it’s no big deal — but if a five-year-old girl were to produce something similar, well, that’s a hot seller. Little Marla Olmstead became a darling of the gallery circuit after her paintings cumulatively sold for more than $300,000. But then doubts as to whether she truly made the paintings on her own began to surface, as some suspected that her father was at least “helping” in their creation. The film doesn’t draw any firm conclusion as to the authorship of Olmstead’s works, but the egg is already all over the art world’s face, whether it realizes it or not. All of these people were only interested in these paintings because they thought a young girl made them. That they would otherwise pay the work no heed exposes how little they actually care about craft.

Herb and Dorothy (2008)

In this case, it’s not so much the film itself as it is the subjects who are flipping the establishment the middle finger. Over the course of 50 years, Herb and Dorothy Vogel amassed a collection of nearly 5,000 works of art. But they were not wealthy layabouts indulging their casual fancies — Herb (a high school dropout) sorted mail, while Dorothy was a librarian. They kept all of their pieces crammed into various nooks of their one-bedroom apartment. With nothing more than diligent work and frugal living, they were able to play in the big leagues of art collection. And as the film follows them, they’re in the process of willing their entire collection to various public institutions, so that the whole world can see them. In their own way, the Vogels wrested a little bit of control from the elite and gave it back to the common man. This film received a sequel, Herb and Dorothy 50×50 in 2013.

The Art of the Steal (2009)

This doc made the art world look bad without even meaning to. It is the only movie I can think of where a conflict between slobs and snobs is thoroughly slanted in favor of the snobs. True, the public servants who took an immensely valuable collection of works away from the Barnes Foundation did so in a repugnantly underhanded fashion, but the doc is ultimately asking the audience to feel bad that so many important pieces are now more freely available for the public to see, which… No. If this puts me on the side of the feckless Philadelphia upper crust who wanted to seize the collection solely to make themselves look more posh, then it’s because, for once, their interests and mine are interesecting. The supporters of Barnes would likely call me a Philistine (because they yell “PHILISTINES!” during their protests, which officially stations them as the whitest public demonstrators ever, even moreso than the Tea Party), so be it.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

Famous street artist Banksy accepted the curious devotion of wannabe artist Thierry Guetta because he figured that it would be useful if someone filmed some graffiti in action for posterity, since the form by its very nature is ephemeral. Banksy then proceeded to watch as Guetta somehow became an “outsider” artist in his own right, and his fame only grew in baffling leaps and bounds. The work of “Mr. Brainwash” seems incomprehensible, but it’s a huge hit with the L.A. scenesters. Banksy watches his world become mainstream and all but gives up, while Guetta makes millions of dollars. If the whole movie is an elaborate hoax, as has been suggested, then its own success (it got an Oscar nomination!) makes for an even better joke.

Tim’s Vermeer (2013)

If Johannes Vermeer did not in fact paint his masterpieces from sight alone and used a mirrored device as an aid, does that diminish the value of his work? Does that make him less of a genius? We marvel at how such masters could bring such minute, lifelike detail to their art, but inventor Tim Jenison thinks that there was an engineering component — the use of a camera obscura. Jenison doesn’t just make a compelling case that he’s right but also that this theory does not really change anything. Vermeer was still a genius, and using a camera obscura would not have been “cheating.” But try telling that to the experts crying foul.

LA-based writer about movies, TV, and other assorted culture stuff. Work collected at http://danschindel.com/