Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in “Mr. Turner”
It’s not very often that Roberta Smith comes out with a think piece, but last week she published “Plotlines? Brush Strokes Are Enough: An Art Critic’s View of ‘Mr. Turner’ and Other Art Films” in the New York Times. While it’s essentially an extended review of several new Hollywood movies about art–including “Mr. Turner,” (about J.M.W. Turner), “Big Eyes” (about Walter and Margaret Keane), “The National Gallery,” “Inside the Mind of Leonardo in 3-D,” and “Tim’s Vermeer”–it raises the question: Why are these movies about art so unrealistic and silly? It reminds me of our conversation about assholery and creative genius last week.
The past year brought a surfeit of films about art, from the Frederick Wiseman documentary “National Gallery,” a sleek, hypnotic portrait of the London museum that houses one of the world’s greatest collections of European paintings, to “Big Eyes,” Tim Burton’s inspiring yet confused, alternately overacted and underacted feature about the painter Margaret Keane and her fight to wrest credit for her images of saucer-eyed waifs from her sociopath husband, Walter. (Among other squirm-inducing details, John Canaday, a Midwesterner who was an art critic for The New York Times in the 1960s, is played by a haughty Terence Stamp with a British accent and ascot.)
Being a Midwestern art critic myself, I love the idea of prancing around the Lower East Side with a British accent and ascot ripping apart artists on-the-spot. And Smith makes a good point: when these movies do faithfully represent the art world, it’s boring. No one is interested. It has to be sensationalized. Unfortunately, most of the world gets its impressions about fine art through popular media, which are obviously bloated and false.
So what happens when the public buys into these images of genius artists and bourgie art critics? For one, most people think of the art world as a bunch of eccentric, purple charlatans. And two, some people tragically come to the art world thinking it’s a place that will accept equally people of diverse class and race backgrounds, while actually the art world is a microcosm of conventional power structures. (Am I being too cynical?)
Why can’t Hollywood ever portray art realistically? Can we chalk this up to the sensational nature of popular media? What’s at stake in these unrealistic portrayals?