Revenge Of The Aesthetic: Velvet Buzzsaw
Dan Gilroy’s latest film Velvet Buzzsaw was released last month on Netflix, following its premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Since its debut, the movie has been attracting hype for its politicized take on the fine art world.
Velvet Buzzsaw stages a battle between aesthetics and commerce. In the film, the aspiring gallery assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) stumbles across a treasure trove of enigmatic paintings in the apartment of her recently deceased neighbor, Vetril Dease. Ignoring a line in his will stipulating that the collection be destroyed upon his death, she and a group of cunning impresarios see a chance to peddle Diese’s work as the next big thing. Little do they know that he has cursed the whole lot, and an unknown force begins to enact revenge against those who profited from the sale. The crew perishes one by one.
The film is a fun slasher-camp riff on the absurdities of the art world, as if the ghostly protagonist of The Ring crawled out of her haunted videotape onto the set of a Christopher Guest mocumentary.
This time, we encounter an Altman-style ensemble cast who stand in for various industry archetypes: The All-Powerful Curators and Gallerists, who pull the strings of public taste (Rene Russo and Toni Collette); The Has-Been Superstar Painter, coasting along thanks to his earlier success (John Malkovich); The Next Big Thing, fetishized for his raw, untutored street art (Daveed Diggs); and a Quintessential Struggling Intern-type named Coco (Natalia Dyer)–all embroiled together in a world under the sway of the Golden Rule: he who has the gold makes the rules.
The film is generally well constructed, and at times quite clever. Some of the slasher aspects are uneven at times, but the movie stands out as a meta-commentary on the relationship between commerce and the aesthetic. Jake Gyllenhall in particular shines as the merciless art critic Morf Vandewalt, a fey kingmaker whose scathing reviews guide the changing tides of art world fashion.
Embedded in the film is a familiar but cheekily presented suggestion that money corrupts art. We learn that one of the gallerists is sneaking advanced looks at Morf’s writing in order to gouge the market; meanwhile, Morf himself discards the integrity he often brags about, penning a scathing review just to help his sometime-girlfriend get back at her ex. Even Coco is mostly just worried about making rent in Los Angeles. And, the intern can’t seem to get a break. One of the great recurring bits is that each morning, she learns that another one of her bosses has been murdered, before rushing out to find a new one–the ultimate case of flexible employment.
If there’s one thing nobody in the film seems to care about, it’s actual art.
Assuming the movie went no further, we’d find ourselves back in late 2000s Exit Through The Gift Shop territory, offering a nice enough riff on the usual progressive quips about sellouts and celebrity. What is novel in this case is that artworks themselves assume the traditional roll of the masked killer. Just as Jason Voorhees’s murder spree is an act of retribution against the summer camp counselors of Friday the 13th, here, it is paintings that extract justice from their masters. (In this moment, the film sits alongside great meta-slashers such as Cabin in the Woods or It Follows, re-deploying the genre’s formal tropes toward subversive ends.)
A kitschy painting of monkeys playing poker attacks a handyman attempting to steal some of Diese’s works, while a sound art installation taunts Morf with his own caustic words; a tattoo even tears free from the skin on which it is adorned. One of the funniest moments in the film occurs when one of the curators is killed while pondering a hyped up installation piece called “Sphere”—basically, an overgrown chrome marble with a multi-million dollar price tag. The next morning, a crowd assumes that her blood-drenched body is part of the show. (It is Coco, of course, who first realizes what has happened–and finds herself out of yet another job.)
Throughout the film, it is as if the aesthetic lashes out against its commodification, extracting revenge on those who have done wrong to beauty itself.
This sensibility locates Velvet Buzzsaw within a lengthier tradition of romantic anti-capitalism, one that laments the deleterious effects of capital on culture. Critical theorists have long been issuing warnings about the corrupting influence of the marketplace. The German writer TW Adorno for example, argued that exchange-value had wholly replaced the use-value of cultural products, while his friend and Frankfurt School associate Walter Benjamin suggested that changes in the forces of production had drained art of its “aura”—its irreducible uniqueness and presence.
Worries about the corrupting influence of money and power are practically as old as leftist art theory itself, finding their clearest expression in the writings of William Morris–perhaps the first writer who could reasonably be called a Marxist aesthetic theorist. (He was an early covert to the views of Marx, personally known to Friedrich Engels and Karl’s wife, Eleanor.)
A textile designer and failed architect as well as a critic, Morris was also an active public speaker in the socialist orbit. In an 1884 talk “Art and Socialism,” Morris postulated a fundamental opposition between art and commerce: “[It cannot] be pleaded for the system of modern civilization that the mere material or bodily gains of it balance the loss of pleasure which it has brought upon the world…. [The system] has trampled down Art, and exalted Commerce into a sacred religion.”
This strain of anti-capitalism was rooted in nostalgia for an idealized pre-history before commodification. Obsessed with the Medieval period, Morris yearned for a time when art was still imbued with Benjamin’s aura–an age when artworks were products of laborious craft, held to be a medium for expressing something divine, even magical. In contrast, Morris saw the world of capitalism as one packed full of cheap, disposable commodities, hastily produced under grueling conditions in order to be sold back to their producers–a working class who was desperate to have anything at all.
Gilroy is a moralist cut from similar cloth, lamenting the replacement of beautiful works with schlock. Of course, in his case, art doesn’t demand a return to paradise, but blood. Still, Velvet Buzzsaw follows after his prior films Nightcrawler (2014) and Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017), which ask about whether or not it is possible to live right in a wrong world. Here, there’s even a happy ending of sorts. As the credits roll, we see John Malkovich’s character rediscovering his love of art. In a moment of authentic creativity, he draws spontaneously on a sandy beach, knowing that the end result will simply be washed away–unreviewed and unsold.
For what it’s worth, Marx and Engels rejected this strain of romanticism. In their 1846 German Ideology, the authors discuss the Renaissance master Raphael at length:
Raphael as much as any other artist was determined by the technical advances in art made before him, by the organisation of society and the division of labour in his locality, and, finally, by the division of labour in all the countries with which his locality had intercourse. Whether an individual like Raphael succeeds in developing his talent depends wholly on demand, which in turn depends on the division of labour and the conditions of human culture resulting from it.
By this account, art is no more exempt from the history of class struggle than any other register of human life, and the authors chastise those who take art to be the product of free play or inspired genius.
The point here isn’t to get bogged down in Marxology, but to call attention to the fact that the progressive vision of art should be the liberation of all humans–not a return to an age when great artists were placed on their proper pedestal.
In the case of Velvet Buzzsaw, the film offers neither a vision of Eden Reborn, nor of a brighter, more utopian future.
Really, it doesn’t end with much at all. It’s easy to become frustrated with the film’s conclusion—which tacks on a classic “to be continued” moment in order to justify the film’s inclusion in the horror category. It’s simply not clear what the endgame is, such that the finale feels a tad pointless–if charming.
Of course, Velvet Buzzsaw is just a movie, and deserves a pass for failing to correctly theorize the communist utopia to come. It’s also pretty damn funny most of the way through, and the art world certainly deserves its licks. To Gilroy’s credit, the film does demonstrate how profoundly capitalism clashes with art–a reminder that market exchange more fundamentally is at odds with human need writ large.
Still, it’s worth keeping in mind the end goal, whether discussing art or any other commodity.
In their discussion of Raphael, Marx and Engels call not just for the de-commodification of painting, but more fundamentally, for a world in which “there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities.” In their vision, the aesthetic is neither a victim of modernity nor a vengeful force from a forgotten world, but something to be held in common by all.