When it comes to satire, the contemporary art world is notoriously low-hanging fruit. This is partly because the key characters of that world—the gallerist, the dealer, the curator, the critic, the collector, not to mention the artist himself—are so often seen as bombastically over the top: hyperbolically self-important figures who almost ask to be caricatured. But it’s also because self-parody has been built into the very fabric of contemporary art, whose postwar trajectory has been colored by modes of skepticism, irony, and critique that often get internalized in art forms themselves. Think of the pop, minimalist, and conceptual art movements of post-1960s America, or, more recently, Michael Asher’s conceptual art, Andrea Fraser’s performance art, or the DIS collective. Art has been critiquing itself for so long at this point that it often feels hard to get ahead of.
Nonetheless, recent years have seen a spate of what we might call “art world satires.” Ruben Östlund’s 2017 Palme d’Or–winning The Square is about a museum curator of modern art whose life begins to fall apart after his wallet gets stolen, and the film spends no shortage of screen time poking fun at both the absurd wealth and the absurd pretension of the contemporary art world. Nathaniel Kahn’s 2018 documentary The Price of Everything is not exactly straightforward satire, but in following the actual titans who buy, sell, and market valuable contemporary art, his film cannot but also treat these figures as parodically larger than life. Television, too, has taken up the art world as satiric fodder, such as in Jill Soloway’s HBO adaptation of I Love Dick or Lena Dunham’s web series about the NYC art scene, Delusional Downtown Divas. As suggested by the adjective in Dunham’s series title, these films and TV shows focus on the myopia of the contemporary art world—getting good joke mileage out of art jargon, hyperconceptual installation art, and, of course, the exclusively wealthy world of art buyers. The more minutely targeted the object of satire here, it seems, the more potentially broad the comedy. And what’s more niche, after all, than a $58.4 million balloon dog?
Since contemporary art itself already seems to be on self-critique overdrive, why does popular culture continue to take it up as a subject for further parody? One reason might be film’s visual affinities with other forms of visual art: Consider all the movies that focus on the work of a single artist, including those that do so without any irony. (Never Look Away, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s biopic about German painter Gerhard Richter, for instance, is nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar this year.) And as the title of Kahn’s documentary suggests, another reason for the popularity of the art-world satire is simply our fascination with the excessive monetary capital propping up that world. Given that the genre of satire works by way of distance and exaggeration, what could be more exquisitely alienating in our current moment of financial precariousness than a microechelon of people who have millions in expendable cash to spend on … conceptual sculptures?
There’s also a sense that these satires are being produced because the economic and political instability felt by the general public is beginning to infiltrate even the most protected denizens of the elite art world. “Of course it’s a bubble,” admits curator Paul Schimmel about the art world in The Price of Everything. “And bubbles make beautiful things, and let’s just try to keep it floating.” Implicit in Schimmel’s metaphor, of course, is not just an analogy between literal and economic bubbles, but also the inherent instability behind every financial bubble in literally all of history. What first booms must always later bust.
It is this instability of value that Dan Gilroy’s newest film, Velvet Buzzsaw, doubles down on. Following on the heels of Gilroy’s 2014 Nightcrawler and 2017 Roman J. Israel, Esq—both of which feature exaggeratedly “extra” protagonists—Velvet Buzzsaw diverges by focusing not on one, but on a collective, of zany characters. Notably, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a fey and improbably influential art critic named Morf Vandewalt, Rene Russo plays a wolfish gallery owner named Rhodora Haze (with shades of her performance from the 1999 Thomas Crown Affair, another film at least nominally about art), and Toni Collette swoops around as Gretchen, a museum curator turned art adviser. Sounding like they might belong in a Charles Dickens novel, each character here is more caricature than stereotype, and all slide seamlessly into the ecosystem of Gilroy’s satire. Whereas Gilroy’s prior two films drew out their protagonists with almost passionate intensity, Velvet Buzzsaw flits from character to character, intent on skewering—sometimes quite literally—each of them. The premise is simple, if also hokey: An art dealer’s protégée discovers an abandoned trove of eerie Goya-esque paintings, which, once placed on the art market, begin to come to life and murder all those who seek to profit off of them.
As with The Square and The Price of Everything, the satire of Velvet Buzzsaw pivots around the theme of aesthetics versus commerce in the contemporary art market. Whereas Östlund and Kahn largely frame the world of the artist as separate from that of the institutions that market and buy art, Gilroy’s ensemble-driven film complicates the relationship between art and economics by imagining these worlds as deeply and irrevocably entwined—which, by the way, they of course are. Much of the satire in The Square and The Price of Everything targets those who “brand” high art (such as the advertising duo in Östlund’s film or the prestigious art agencies in Kahn’s), while presenting artists themselves as relatively untouched; the artists featured in The Price of Everything repeatedly emphasize their ignorance or indifference to what goes on in the art market, choosing instead to maintain the classic narrative about the moral irreconcilability between artistic freedom and commercial realities. This includes even Jeff Koons, who responds to a comment about being the most financially successful artist living today with obliviousness: “Uh, if that would be the case, OK, it’s really quite, uh, humbling, you know?”
Velvet Buzzsaw instead explores the mayhem of what happens when the worlds of art and commerce collide. To do this, Gilroy draws on the horror genre, weaving it into the logic of satire. For instance, one of the best recurring punch lines throughout the film is also supposed to be one of its scariest: intern Coco (played by Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer) keeps having to look for new employment because all of her bosses keep mysteriously dying. Because Coco is the one who keeps discovering the dead bodies, usually in the process of delivering morning coffee, her repeated screams are supposed to register not only the horror of encountering a murdered body, but also the horror that is precarious labor. (Coco, for what it’s worth, is the only character who survives.)
Like Östlund, Gilroy also heightens the satire in his film by pointing out how so much contemporary art is simply, well, kind of freaky. (Gilroy notes that he was inspired to write Velvet Buzzsaw after a seeing a particularly creepy art installation at Dia: Beacon.) But Gilroy’s use of horror more often turns campy—paintings of hands literally reach out to kill characters, and a piece of installation art in the form of a giant chrome sphere with various apertures saws up Gretchen’s arm and starts spewing up her blood. (The film could be read as one long joke about what happens when you “touch” the artwork.) John Malkovich plays Piers, the film’s resident established living artist, whose current work in progress looks just as if Ellsworth Kelly painted some giant testicles; when his dealer comes over to take a look, he leans forward into the painting and cocks his head to the side, thinking hard, to which Piers asks: “Just give me an honest goddamn opinion about what you’re looking at.” These moments slide Velvet Buzzsaw away from true horror and back into the world of kitschy comedy. One of my favorite jokes is when the speech-to-text function on Rhodora’s phone refuses to recognize the term “pop art”—art literally indistinguishable from kitsch—leaving her to loudly re-enunciate the phrase multiple times. In softening horror’s edge with humor’s cushion, Velvet Buzzsaw could be dismissed as both ineffectual horror and ineffectual satire—a hot, but not all that scary, mess. Yet, in failing to deliver truly gripping jump scares, Gilroy makes a film that, perhaps inadvertently, comments on the potential ineffectualness of the contemporary art world to truly sell us what it promises.
Put simply: Velvet Buzzsaw mobilizes the genre to emphasize the fakeness of the art world. Yes, the CGI is bad. But so, too, is a lot of the art (which is, FYI, currently sitting in a storage facility; Gilroy is not sure what to do with it). As with much of the contemporary art in Gilroy’s film, then, the horror, I suspect, isn’t supposed to feel authentic. And that Velvet Buzzsaw portrays its characters as flipping out over both art (“demand has people ready to kill”) and murder scenes (see: Natalia Dyer’s scream count), even as the audience finds the whole scenario fairly laughable, is part of the perverse success of its satire.
Velvet Buzzsaw is by no means a richly developed movie with a richly developed pool of characters. Instead, it highlights moral weakness, shallow social bonds, and a volatile commercial market. “We don’t sell durable goods,” says Rhodora at one point, “we peddle perception. Thin as a bubble.” The film, with its frivolous genre-switching, becomes an oddly appropriate thematization of the thinness of this world: slick and shiny, reflecting its high production value, but ultimately unreal. Isn’t that the point?
Jane Hu is a writer and PhD candidate living in Oakland.