‘Art Bastard’ Forces Us to Question: Is Being an Artist Interesting Anymore?

This post was selected for inclusion in our Future of Art and Work series in December 2016. The series, sponsored by Microsoft Surface, selects some of our best posts exploring the topics of how art and work will look in the 21st century. This post was originally published in May, 2016. 

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“The last taboo of art right now,” says a friend of Robert Cenedella in the new film, Art Bastard, “is Bob’s sincerity.” If that’s true of art, then it might just be true of documentary, too. Directed by Victor Kanefsky, Art Bastard is not this year’s flashiest documentary; it has no editorial pizzazz, is soundtracked inexpensively, and does not turn a sharply critical eye to its sharp, critical subject, the aforementioned Cenedella. Instead, its sincere look at the artist’s life serves as the year’s first documentary-as-lionization, a subgenre of the art that’s quickly becoming one of its most popular. It also exposes that subgenre’s flaws.

Art Bastard resembles mostly the recent docs Beauty Is Embarrassing and Cutie and the Boxer, though its story has more tragedy than the first and more triumph than the second. Cenedella’s life is ripe for the drama needed to sustain a biographical doc, if only for the circumstances of his birth: he was born to a mother who he says was “the worst when drunk and the best when sober,” and lived with her and an adoptive father from whom he gets his name, but little else. (Cenedella’s birth father was a professor, and they mostly communicated through letters.) But Art Bastard (and Cenedella’s life) fails to have the emotional punch of Cutie because it lacks neither a tragic nor heroic ending; he does not take over the art world, and he does not become destitute. In the end, he simply exists by making art. And while artists’ lives used to be mysteries to those of us who don’t live them, film and writing’s constant exploitation of that trope — not to mention that reality TV and social media grant us all-access looks into all lives, of artists or otherwise — demands the lives of documentary subjects be almost unbelievable to be even a little bit interesting. And Cenedella’s isn’t.

Unknown to most who don’t keep up with art-world headlines, Cenedella has done fairly well for himself as an artist. He studied under German New Objectivist George Grosz, whom he last saw after trying and failing to stow away with him on a post-graduation boat to Berlin. He’s had the luck of creating breakout moments throughout his decades-long career, most notably with the early show, “Yes Art,” that mocked Warhol and his Pop movement and served both as Cenedella’s kiss-off to the “too commercial” art world and his introduction to the world of advertising, where he stayed for 10 years. He then returned to painting, making bank from a weird, controversial show in the lobby of the building of ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi, and commissions from Le Cirque and Heinz. Throughout, his painting style remained deceptively crude, reminiscent of Grosz’s gross realism, only using its nastiness as a means of capturing the real-life sickness of life in New York. He now teaches at the same school where Grosz taught him; in that way, at least, his life has formed some kind of neat circle. In theory, it should serve for a tidy documentary, too, but it doesn’t.

That very brief bit of Cenedella’s life airs the problems of Art Bastard. As the (technically correct) title suggests, Kanefsky insists his subject achieved whatever he’s achieved through subverting the art world, but what he’s done is manage to work around it, only not in any sly way. He simply made his name as a hip cog in the SoHo machine, and then transitioned that credibility to hoity-toity commissions; even his Le Cirque mural, as neat as it is, lacks any of the grit that Kanefsky would say defines him as an artist.

This isn’t to criticize Cenedella, but rather to criticize what has become of our expectations of these types of films. Cutie and the Boxer resonates because, in the end, Cutie’s (Noriko Shinohara) life was ruined by the Boxer (Ushio Shinohara): he got her pregnant and she devoted her life to him. (Remarkably, their story is not warped into one of pure love; as Noriko tells it, the most resonant emotions are bitterness and regret.) The tragedy of Cenedella is mostly in the circumstance, though he overcame that early, and seemed suited to the headline-making ways necessary for staying relevant as an artist. If any conflict remains in this late stage of his life, it’s whether or not he’ll emerge from the shadow of Grosz, though Cenedella is the only one with such concerns.

Cenedella’s conflict is existential, and existential isn’t good enough. It’s certainly not good enough in terms of artistic figures, whom we only want to see as famous or failed. In 2016, when the stories of everyone, celebrity or otherwise, are fodder for material, for an artist to merely sustain oneself by painting is equal to someone earning a solid living as a grocery clerk: it’s a life, but it’s not necessarily exciting. It doesn’t matter that to live as an artist, and only an artist, is nearly impossible anymore. We want our artists as extremists, to live on the fringe, to inhabit spaces and mindsets we can’t imagine from our couches. We believe the best art is the most passionate art, and we want our artist figures to embody that passion, to cut their ears off, to commit suicide, to hear voices. Or, simply, we want them to live destitute.

It’s tough to have these thoughts after watching Art Bastard, because Cenedella is jolly enough, and his work can move you, even if it does so like a bulldozer. It’s nothing more than selfish to think, “Man, if only he’d suffered more, this movie would be so much better.” But this film proves that not all lives are suited to documentary, at least not in full. Surely, even an overarching film on Pablo Picasso would fall flat, given the periods of calm (or, to use less of a yogi term, stasis) that define most lives when taken as lump sums. That Cenedella accomplished living as an artist is commendable, nearly a miracle. Even more of a miracle is that Art Bastard manages to normalize the artist’s life, minimizing it to little more than a curiosity.