Velvet Buzzsaw: We Deserve Better, But the Art Market Doesn’t

Posted on February 04, 2019, 2:22 pm
19 mins

Velvet Buzzsaw is not good, but it is getting some cheeky appreciation in the press because it skewers an easy target: the art market. The art market deserves it, and everyone seems to know it, even if they don’t know the ins-and-outs.

It helps if you keep your expectations low going into Velvet Buzzsaw, and go in expecting fairly rote horror genre. True to its genre, it dishes out silly, Dante-esque ironic punishments and Grand Guignol splatter. Only, the splatter isn’t even all that grand—sorry, gore fans. Without the profile of its actors, Velvet Buzzsaw would not be getting the buzz that it has, but I even though I don’t like the film, I am for it.

The film at least divulges some insider baseball about the art market, and that I applaud. Unfortunately, the writers get a lot of things wrong, and reiterate stereotypes that dissuade people from engaging more with art. The good and bad cancel each other out, and we’re left with a bore (with an especially irritating score). If the film spent a little more time fleshing out its satire rather than its banal ghost story, it would have been a different and better film. But if you like schlocky horror, Velvet Buzzsaw is at least a visually slick change of pace.

I watched it with someone who doesn’t know the art market, and at times he would ask, “Is it really like that?” In most cases, I could offer a conditional “yes,” in others an emphatic “mmmyep,” and others a “hell no.” Thanks to that experience, I can see that it is worth making this a teachable moment.

“Do art critics wield that much power?”

Jake Gyllenhall’s character Morf (Vandewalt) is one of those pesky art-world stereotypes in the popular imagination: the critic who can destroy an artist with a single stroke of their poison pen. In reality, bad reviews can actually boost attendance for a show, and veteran collectors have critics they love and critics they hate (sometimes based on taste, sometime on the bottom line). No critic is an unquestioned, singular tastemaker.

Critics who play tastemaker are part of a larger economic and bureaucratic system, and they certainly aren’t rogues within it. Furthermore, we critics (and our diminishing word counts) aren’t writing about every single thing that we see, which Morf magically manages to do between Peloton and Pilates. (This is how the writers justify Morf’s thirst-inducing physique, and I will not complain about seeing it.)

There have been many powerful critics, who have championed specific artistic movements. Their rise to supremacy was symbiotic with the artists they elevated. (And in the case of Clement Greenberg, by backing from the CIA.) But even at the height of their power, critics are just a few of many players in diverse, often competing markets, in which there is far too much speculation for one to critic to rock everyone’s boat.

“Can a critic spoil a big sale, just like that?”

At the outset of Velvet Buzzsaw, Morf pans an artwork at Art Basel Miami. (To be fair, the artwork is lame…literally.) We later learn that the eager dealer’s pending sale was spoiled by this review, and later still it conveniently comes back to haunt poor Morf. (Worth noting: If the writers really want to lampoon the venality and wheeler-dealing of the art world, then this was not the ill-conceived thread to use against him.)

A bad review could conceivably jeopardize a deal, but collectors are far more interested in consensus, because that is pretty much the ONLY THING that determines value in the art world. Only the most amateur collectors would get cold-feet based on one, shrewd review. The most invested know that there are far more important figures, and they leave it to them to decide what is worth liking.

And this is key: Velvet Buzzsaw is said to be critiquing the “art world” as if it only existed in this narrow, market-driven tier. Critics who operate outside of the “art world” fall into this trap all the time in their coverage, in part because films like Velvet Buzzsaw (and even mainstream movies that just throw a scene from a museum or gallery in) imply it so frequently.

The art world comprises far more working class galleries and artists and laborers and collectors of modest means. So let’s be clear: Art markets and institutions are the target of the satire in Velvet Buzzsaw, but not everyone in the art world is so compromised. The writers seems to know this, as the artists in the film make it out rather unscathed.

Gretchen (Toni Collette) plays with art before it plays with her in Velvet Buzzsaw.

“Would the art market really go nuts for some newly discovered artist?”

In a market hungry for novel investment opportunities, fresh meat can lead to a feeding frenzy, but rarely. The central conceit of Velvet Buzzsaw goes overboard, creating a global market overnight for Ventril Dease, an unknown, already deceased artist with no pedigree and (they are told) a limited output. The film’s flimsy justification is that Dease’s art is, in fact, supernaturally prepossessing (which also helps one suspend disbelief when seeing how unprepossessing the work actually is on screen).

The trailer for Velvet Buzzsaw is spoiler-heavy, so I’m not spoiling anything in stating that the artist in Velvet Buzzsaw turns out to be criminally insane, tortured, and given to painting with his own blood. (Another rather dull trope, but oh well.) We get that exposition with cliched, cringe-worthy quick-cuts bathed in creature-feature green. These revelations are treated as things best kept secret in the film, but… no. No one cares in the real world. It’s all basically a sensationalized revision of Henry Darger, an icon of Outsider Art, whose work was found in his apartment after he died in 1973.

The real art market suffers killers, serial molesters, and scoundrels without fatigue. The history of art-making is full of flesh, bone, and blood, all the way up to the present. E.g. Marc Quinn’s “Self”: a frozen bust of his own head made with ten-pints of his own blood.

The art market is like the stock market: less squeamish about bloodshed than devaluation. Velvet Buzzsaw critiques the market’s lack of moral center, but then suggests it really does have some rather mundane limits. (It doesn’t.) The issue with Dease suddenly arising from obscurity, painting with blood and being certifiable would not be moral. It would be that he is a cliche. That would be unforgivable.

“Are there really tax incentives for displaying work at a museum?”

It is novel to see an art adviser, Gretchen (Toni Colette), on screen talking brass tacks with museum staff. She mentions a tax incentive for a collector who wants to get work on the museum’s walls ASAP. Such incentives do exist, and the loopholes that allow them are justified as leverage for museums to show high profile works that collectors might otherwise stow away. They are another way that institutions are complicit in the art market’s shell game, through which collectors hide their wealth, or expand it. (After all, when a museum exhibits emerging artists, dealers and collectors can tack another zero onto the artwork’s worth.)

Specifically, what Gretchen might have been talking about was avoiding use tax. Use taxes are assessed on purchases made outside the state when no sales tax was paid. Certain states allow exemptions from use taxes on purchases if an item is used elsewhere for 90 days. California is one such state. In the case of art, a newly purchased artwork would just need to be displayed elsewhere for that amount of time. After that, no use tax is due.

I’m not a CPA, but it is safe to assume that Gretchen’s anonymous collector lives outside California, but in a state with such use-tax exemptions. Hence why she wants the art “used” (that is, displayed) quickly before shipping it home.

It happens a lot, and Portland, OR has become a major part of the pipeline of art moving between coasts for this reason. The most high profile example came in 2014, when the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art displayed a Francis Bacon triptych, purchased by Elaine Wynn for $142.4 million at Christie’s—at the time, the most expensive art sale ever at auction. Thanks to this exemption, Wynn (a Nevada resident) did not have to pay over 10 million dollars in use-tax in her home state, because it was “used” out of state for ninety days.

Rene Russo as gallerist Rhodora Haze in Velvet Buzzsaw.

“Do galleries bundle artworks to promote emerging artists?”

I must say, the film’s best acting comes from Rene Russo, playing Rhodora Haze, the world-weary founder and namesake of the world-class Haze Gallery. Russo breathes some humanity into the role while we are moved procedurally, scene to scene. One such procedural exchange with Gretchen isn’t memorable, but it’s another lesson in art-world dealing.

Gretchen’s anonymous collector wants two big pieces from Dease, whose entire collection is under the control of Haze Gallery. Rhodora tells her that the demand for the work is such that she can’t guarantee anything. However…they can purchase the two that they covet if they also purchase three works from another, emerging artist represented by Haze.

This kind of bundling happens among high-end galleries, as a way to push emerging artists into private collections. The artist gets paid and their profile gets raised, but it can set them up for a later flop, when these sales are based less on merit and demand, and more on hedging.

Therein lies the enduring power of representation, and the supremacy of a narrow tier of galleries whose access to “blue-chip” artwork gives them major leverage to secure deals. The vast majority of galleries have to fight for and justify every sale. They are run by passionate, middle-class art lovers who bleed daily for their profession and their artists. Given the chance, some might sell their right arm to be in Rhodora’s position, but none are naive about the personal cost involved. (Rhodora’s roots in a punk artist collective, Velvet Buzzsaw, give the film its title.)

The film nods to this steep, golden ladder (and makes the bloodletting literal), but the emerging, accessible art gallery remains invisible as it always does in fictional media portrayals. To be fair…they are not very sexy. And speaking of which…

“Everyone is in each other’s business. Is everyone on-the-take?”

Velvet Buzzsaw’s plot and characters may be thin, but this much is true: The lines between roles in the art market can be rather blurred, and people fool around in every messy, conceivable way. Velvet Buzzsaw is, in the end, a made-for-TV movie, so for the sake of expediency, everyone is a little too open about their venality.

But do institutional leaders turn around and use their credit and connections as capital when they go freelance? That would cheapen the stature of the institutions that fostered them. Of course some do.

Do critics get paid with the very art that they are promoting? That would be grossly unethical. Of course some do. (Incidentally, Morf has no issue with this, but throws a tantrum when Gretchen suggests she would be interested in buying favorable reviews with cash.)

Do gallerists procure work in unseemly ways or even steal from artists outright, and do collectors look the other way? That would undermine the whole idea that these systems exist to support the art-makers. Of course some do.

And do they really spend that much time in sleazy, boring romantic subplots? Well no, but they also don’t spend as much time in Pilates and Peloton, so no loss there.

Damrish (Daveed Diggs) and Piers (John Malkovich) actually look at the art at the big opening in Velvet Buzzsaw.

Some parting shots and thoughts

That about covers what little there is to salvage from Velvet Buzzsaw. I am happy to say that the most likeable, redemptive characters are the artists themselves. As stand-ins for the larger art world outside the art market, Piers (John Malkovich) and Damrish (Daveed Diggs) are a great foil: One struggling to continue creating; one struggling to stay honest; both genuine art lovers who are at turns bored and horrified by the sleaze around them.

The scenes with these two were the most sincerely enjoyable. Unfortunately, they were rather rare. There were so many more moments worthy of eyerolls, but not of mention. In fact, if I were to be faced with an ironic punishment for this review, it would go something like this:

I remember the scene of Morf, having a meltdown as he hears his own negative reviews on blast in an anechoic chamber. They are so toothless, tedious, but he is tortured by them. It is the beating of his hideous art!

My eyes roll back so far into my head and with such force that they blow my brains out. For extra Grand Guignol points, the liquefied brain matter could action paint on the wall behind me…or even create a stenciled piece of word art, some jaded, ironic phrase like “THIS IS NOT ART” or “PAY ME.”

There. If I have failed to make something educational of this, I have at least given the gore fans something more memorable. Call me, Netflix.

In the meantime, I recommend watching much more interesting documentaries on the art world: The Price of Everything on HBO; In The Realms of the Unreal (about Henry Darger); and Nocturnal Animals, for an actually horrifying, beautiful movie (also starring Gyllenhall) that isn’t about the LA art scene, but says much more about it, and more poignantly than Velvet BS ever could.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.