From the second season of the unexpectedly popular reality show "Work of Art" to the LACMA's installation of the traveling blockbuster Tim Burton exhibition, the courtship between visual art and Hollywood movies -- and vice versa -- takes a long and winding road of love, hate, jealousy, misapprehension, worship, mutual admiration and disdain, clumsy interpretations, and the occasional flare-up of genius. At its worst, a snobbish pandering leads to travesties like MOCA's Jeffrey Deitch's bizarre and prolonged involvement with, and attempts at legitimizing of, the non-existent atelier talents of James Franco. One of his first acts at MOCA was to lend its Pacific Design Center (PDC) annex to a soap-opera storyline in which James Franco played a murderer and painter, whose character met his gruesome end during his solo show at the museum, after Deitch did his cameo. Franco made his own art, and MOCA made everyone slog through earnest press materials claiming it was all real performance art, and a major breakthrough for the modern sensibility of interdisciplinary action. People pretty much freaked out. Plus this was around the time of the Dennis Hopper retrospective which had been Deitch's first act as director. No disrespect to the late, great Hopper, but among his many talents and visionary creative acts, his work as a painter was considered marginal -- a fact Ed Moses saw fit to point out at the press conference, to the chagrin of both Deitch and the exhibition's curator, Julian Schnabel.
Now as rumors of a Schnabel survey at MOCA next year swirl, the irony that this controversial cultural figure has revealed himself to be a far more gifted movie director than plate-breaking painter is not lost. Especially since his breakout film was the glorious and already-classic biopic of Jean-Michael Basquiat. By contrast, the Miranda July show currently at MOCA's PDC annex is actually kind of great, as July herself has long pursued parallel lines of art making; merely, if more visibly, counting film among her mediums. This past September saw a show of photographs by actual rock star Moby at Kopeikin Gallery, and of course that Burton show at LACMA, home of rock-star museum director, Michael Govan, was the talk of summer 2011, giving even MOCA's "Art in the Streets" visitor stats a run for their proverbial money. The lauding of Burton at LACMA itself was a bit ironic, coming on the heels of the kerfuffle that ensued when Govan tried to cut the film program.
But even more surreal than the cinema-centric machinations of the curatorial class, are the variations of the artist archetype appearing in our filmed entertainments themselves. Gone are the days of the impassioned, tormented van Gogh as played by Kirk Douglas in "Lust for Life" or the contrarian, criminal curmudgeon of Alec Guinness in "The Horse's Mouth." For a while, semantic and coincidental flourishes blossomed, like Viggo Mortensen using his own paintings for his character to have made in "Dial M for Murder" or John Waters, an accomplished photographer, grafting his autobiography onto a young artist's story in "Pecker," and even the return of Larry Clark to the lens via his work on "Kids." Gone is the day of "Jules et Jim" and the secret but important love triangle of Marcel Duchamp and Beatrice Wood that inspired it, replaced with "artist" as short-hand for bohemian kook a la Maude in "The Big Lebowski," or the entire sex-farce materialism folly of 2009's "Boogie-Woogie," an art-world comedy of manners more or less about Larry Gagosian and Damien Hirst and how it's all just a big scheme anyway. A bisexual female character on "Boardwalk Empire" is identified as a true bohemian due to her twin habits of wearing berets and painting like Cassatt. The protagonist of Steve Martin's "Shop Girl" is signaled as being a deep, thoughtful human due to her talents as an artist. Remember the episode of "Mad Men" where someone bought a Rothko and everyone else made fun of him?
The good news is, gone too are the days of "Six Feet Under" in which the character of Claire achieves fame as a visual artist -- but the real-life artists who made the work were not only uncredited, they were contractually forbidden from claiming it as their own in their portfolios. In place of that, we have the artists themselves now taking center stage -- with their names, faces, foibles, creative processes, and brilliance on display in the really-very-good TV show "Work of Art," which in its "Project Runway" format, succeeds in portraying something like the diversity in inner lives of the humans that take up art as a vocation, as well as the reality of art's salience, relevance, and accessibility to a broad audience. I'm sure whichever of these brave souls currently graces the cover of this magazine, the honor was well-deserved.