Barry Avrich’s Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World seeks to provide viewers with an introduction to the cloistered universe that is contemporary art. Featuring up-close interviews with legendary artists, gallery owners, auctioneers, and other assorted members of the art-world jet-set, Avrich gives his audience a glimpse into the inner workings of the bizarre system that led to British artist Damien Hirst getting a reported $12 million payday for his piece The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living—literally just a tiger shark preserved in a glass tank of formaldehyde. The film is polite, reverent, and respectfully matter-of-fact in its treatment of these people and issues. It coyly marvels at the enigmatic Larry Gagosian, arguably the most important art dealer in history, and his efforts to maintain his notorious low public profile. It sits in quiet wonder as conceptual post-black artist Rashid Johnson explains how he despises the monetary side of art while the aforementioned Hirst brazenly admits to loving it. And it films the garish stainless steel balloon sculptures of Jeff Koons with the same loving admiration as a Matisse masterwork. In short Blurred Lines is the glass window through which Banksy threw his cinematic brick Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010).
One can see the good intentions throughout Blurred Lines. Avrich repeatedly broaches the obvious topic of how art is only worth what people are willing to pay for it. In that respect, the art world has become a veritable arms race in the last few decades between nouveau riche collectors eager to prove their wealth and culture with supposedly rare and valuable pieces. Consider how it’s estimated that the vast majority of people who attend auctions at Sotheby’s are there not to bid but to be seen publicly as potential bidders. Or how art shows like Art Basel Miami are like rich kids clubs for socializing and indulging underdeveloped tastes in art. Avrich asks interesting questions: Who decides how much anything’s worth? The artists? The gallery owners? The auctioneers? The museum curators? When do artists stop being artists and become pop culture figures like Andy Warhol or Marina Abramović? And if the amount people are willing to pay for art has increased exponentially in the last few decades, is there an art world financial bubble? Will it ever pop? But Avrich rarely lingers on these questions long enough for them to be properly explored before zooming off to the next topic. The film is divided into 10+ chapters, each examining facets of the art world like The Artists, The Collectors, The Auction Houses. Each of these individually could have been extended to intriguing, satisfying feature length documentaries. But together, they all seem critically stunted in scope. We realize that what we’re watching isn’t an investigation of the art world, but an advertisement for it.
I suppose it’s a small mercy that Avrich never gets esoteric enough to broach the subject of just what is art anyway, man? But I was curious to see he seemed to miss one of the most obvious questions of all: has the recent rampant commercialism of the art world resulted in a general decline in the quality of art as opposed to the price? For those not in the know, famous Japanese artist Takashi Murakami once made a sculpture entitled My Lonesome Cowboy which consisted of a young man lassoing a rope of his own ejaculate. In 2008 it sold for $15.2 million at an auction at Sotheby’s. The Devil might ask “it’s pretty, but is it art?” But apparently the art world asks “it’s pretty, but can we market it to gullible thirtysomething hedge fund managers?”
For further Tribeca Film Festival 2017 coverage, click here.