This may be confirmation bias on my part, but it seems like the new century has generated a larger number of films trying to come to grips with the "art market" than it has at any time previously. Some of these are documentary in nature (e.g. My Kid Could Paint That, Who The **** Is Jackson Pollock) and others are fictional narratives, usually with a satirical or 'darkly humorous' bent (e.g. Untitled.) The common thread uniting these films is their portrayal of the art business as fundamentally flawed, and as prone to hoaxes, cronyism and general deceit as any other field of human achievement. Overall, it is not a pretty picture.
This is not to say that criticism of the market's key players - from dealers to agents to 'art stars' themselves - is some wholly altruistic enterprise. Satirical and dramatic commentaries on the "capital A" art world are often hamstrung by the critics' own inability to do more than just voice their discontent. It's difficult for filmmakers to make pieces critical of, say, the 'hipster artist' archetype without seeming like they are filled with resentment for their subjects. These works tend to make the greatest impact when they pity their subjects rather than simply shake fists at them, because the latter approach too often feels motivated by frustration that the hipster / slacker legions are winning the war for public recognition. That is to say, these critiques would work better if they showed the ways in which transitory public recognition has taken precedence over more enduring uses for artistic expression. Though it may not seem obvious at first, Michael Bilandic's 2013 film Hellaware is one film that does deliver the goods here. As can be guessed by the punning title, it's a vulgar and sometimes very silly ride, but this inclination towards vulgarity and silliness is an ideal framing device for showing how the art world has atrophied. Besides, the promise of sardonic comedy guarantees that this film will be seen by at least some of the people who its critique is squarely aimed at.
Hellaware opens typically enough, with a scene shot in an unnamed gallery, where a professional skateboard hero's mawkish attempts at illustration are being revered by seemingly everyone except the film's protagonist, Nate (portrayed, with a very convincing level of thin-skinnedness and exasperation, by Keith Poulson.) Nate lambastes his girlfriend for falling under the would-be artiste's sway, and is generally introduced to us as someone who might be looking for deeper meaning in art than the grandstanding, "authenticity"-obsessed material his young and spoiled peers are offering. Soon enough, though, it will be revealed that Nate is mesmerized by the same flickering flame of social acceptance that he acidly dismisses in that opening gallery scene.
In a botched attempt to calm himself down, Nate spends an evening snorting cocaine with his stalwart friends Bernadette (Sophia Takal) and Nino (Clarke Bliss). After then viewing an online feature by Bernadette on a "Young British Artist" whose latest exhibit centers on severed penises encrusted in sequins, the aleatory magic of YouTube kicks in and the trio discover a video posted by a Delaware-based 'rap-rock' band called Young Torture Killas. The band in question is a hallucinogenic trainwreck clearly modeled on the 'horrorcore' style of the Insane Clown Posse; like their role models they are distinguished mainly by hard-ass sobriquets like MC Syke-o-Babble and a penchant for mixing unprovoked sadistic violence with whatever drugs are readily available. Their masterfully idiotic song "I Cut Yo' Dick Off," partially composed for the film by Bilandic himself, will repeatedly bludgeon viewers over the head over the course of the film. More importantly, though, Nate sees in them a golden opportunity to cash in on the local art market's obsession with authenticity. After showing the "…Dick" video to a former ethnography professor (who memorably lauds its serenity in violence as "the quintessential American image"), Nate is promised an audience with the decadent gallerist Olivier LaFleur (Gilles Decamps) if he can convert his interest in the Young Torture Killaz into a hard-hitting photographic essay. After an intimidating visit to the YTKs' smoke-shrouded basement rehearsal space, and then to LaFleur himself, Nate's journalistic skill gives him the results he desired - a solo show at Lafleur's gallery.
Nate's rationales for getting involved with the band are usually pretty weak, and along the lines of a fallacious 'appeal to authority' (for example, when driving with Bernadette to meet his unwitting artistic collaborators, he argues how similar this photo-journalistic mission is to the work of Diane Arbus.) Over time, he seems to develop a genuine affinity for the subjects of his artwork, though it is never absolutely clear where his appreciation of the kids comes from. Is he really enamoured of them because they are the antithesis to the Brooklynite brand of superficiality and stylized ennui, or is he lying to himself about his 'spiritual connection' to the band just long enough to exploit them for a shot at fame? Initially, his actions don't tip his hand: when he steals some prescription medication from his own mother in order to satisfy the band's craving for 'purple drank,' it seems as much like an act done out of loyalty as one calculated to get the band into the type of highly compromised mental and physical state that would make for good imagery.
At the opening night of his solo show, Nate does his best to deliver the kind of explanatory illuminations expected of artists at the opening night of their exhibitions. During this process, he brings to mind a quote of Cioran's about orchestra conductors being interviewed - he is an "expert in the art of counterfeiting the thinker […] since he is as ignorant as his hearers of what he wants to say or what he wants, he can go on for hours without exhausting the amazement of the puppets listening to him."[i] It is indeed cringe inducing watching him claw and scrape towards profundity, and his statements are never any more provocative than near-tautological quips like "they think they're darker than they really are, and that in itself is dark." The climactic scene involving the band's uninvited appearance at Nate's show appears to be a disaster at first, but soon enough becomes the very thing that cements his newfound success. This does, however, come at the price of realizing that artistic celebrity is not tantamount to a public understanding of what the celebrated artist really wished to communicate. We are left wondering how Nate will deal with this conundrum of being famous for an aesthetic statement that is not fully his own, and it is a good enough place to end a film that could have easily added another 20 minutes to its lean running time.
Hellaware succeeds not because it reaches for the low-hanging fruit of exposing the art world's machinations and its capacity for exploitation. Rather it shows just how uncomfortably close that world can be to the "low" culture it samples and occasionally patronizes - there is a curious symbiotic relationship at work here. In Hellaware, the dissipated and disenchanted lives of the Delaware teens are contrasted with the activities of the Brooklyn cultural elite in such a way that only their expressive forms seem different, when all is said and done. The motivations for their respective expressions, however, are strikingly similar: witness how little the reactions of YTK mainman Rusty and Nate differ when the former is told that some record labels might have an interest in his work, and when the latter is granted his first gallery show. For grease-painted gangsta and coke-fueled hipster alike, art is a vehicle for social acceptance and not for transformative processes (social or otherwise.) As much as avant garde status-seekers may claim an interest in lowbrow culture based on its non-recuperable "outsider" status, I really feel that much of their interest in these mythicized "Others" comes from the funhouse mirror reflection that they provide.
[i] E.M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born, p. 181. Trans. Richard Howard. Arcade / Skyhorse Publishing, 2012.