Worth the Dissection: Velvet Buzzsaw Confronts the Evils of Marketing, Influence, and Money
In David Gilroy’s latest film, Velvet Buzzsaw, the Nightcrawler director takes on the commodification of influence by turning his lens onto the art world. It’s a satisfyingly fun satire with an edge. It’s also smart.
For most of us, what constitutes “real art” remains a mystery. We know what we like and what we don’t, but few can convincingly explain why Mark Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow” is considered a masterpiece, while the pet portraits you sell on Etsy are not.
Perhaps we can agree that at its core, true art expresses something real, overtly or covertly; causing the viewer to reflect on his own life by looking outward and into someone else’s. Art is transformative and edifying, which by default makes the artist a teacher of sorts.
As we enter the world that Velvet Buzzsaw takes place in, we immediately recognize it as our own. There are people with talent, and those with a talent for profiting from them. Our core characters are a group of art influencers, starting with Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), an eccentric art critic who can make or destroy an artist’s career with his reviews. There’s Rhodara Haze (Rene Russo), gallery owner and agent, her prodigy Josephina (Zawe Ashton), and Gretchen (Toni Collette), an adviser. Within the first scene we view the type of exchange that we expect amongst art types as Morf impassionedly debates the unoriginality of “Hoboman”, a mechanical adaptation of a destitute Uncle Sam. But it isn’t long before we learn that these industry bigwigs are far more concerned with finding work to commercialize than elevate the masses.
“I came to the museum because I wanted to change the world through art,” Gretchen tells Morf after revealing she has landed a lucrative gig with a rich collector. “But the wealthy vacuum up everything, except crumbs.”
She recognizes that the exclusiveness of their world prevents most from ever entering, but it also affords her “a terribly lovely car and garden.” Rather than championing work she believes in, it makes more fiscal sense to “join the party” and conform. The scene leaves us pondering the problem that is arts intrinsic value and its monetary one. There are many scenes like it; Gretchen offering a non-traceable reward to Morf in exchange for info on who’s about to make it big; Piers (John Malkovich) insisting he’s about “creation” though he’s recently signed with a rep who cannot distinguish his work from the literal trash in his studio. Perhaps the best example can be found where Rhodara, eager to represent underground street artist Damrish, gives a breakdown on how the industry works. “Let me fill you in,” she tells him. “All this…it’s just a safari to hunt the next new thing and eat it.”
For those of us who aren’t creatives, this world, with its millions spent on items that rarely make their way into a person’s living room, seems a hell of one’s own making. But can this not be said of most industries? For decades we’ve heard the old advice of “do what you love” for a career path, but for so many, that’s just not practical. As Rhodara’s pitch to Damrish illustrates, street cred is cool, but it doesn’t offer a retirement plan. There is also the matter of identity and that we’ve been conditioned to find ours in what we do for a living. There’s a double pressure for the creatively inclined as being marketable and artistically authentic are two separate, often conflicting things. If you’re work rivals Monet but you pay your rent driving for Uber, are you really an artist? Can a play, song, or photograph have value if it isn’t critically acclaimed? As Josephina points out, “What’s the point of art if nobody sees it?”
The film turns dark after Josephina stumbles on the work of her recently deceased neighbor. Vetril Dease was a tortured soul who made tortured- but captivating- art (albeit, with his own blood). Although he left instructions for his paintings to be destroyed, this doesn’t prevent Rhodara from creating a bidding war for them. This quickly proves to be a big mistake as characters begin meeting unfortunate endings. Gretchen bleeds to death after having her arm severed by “The Sphere”, Josephina is turned into a piece of street art, and Morf is murdered by Hoboman, who before breaking his neck robotically utters, “I can’t save you.”
The killings should not be seen as Dease’s revenge for his wishes being ignored, but as punishment for rigging the system in which his work is viewed. Many characters admire his paintings throughout the film, but it’s only the influencers who seem to invoke his wrath by perverting the way it’s introduced to the world. To be clear, none of the characters who bite it are entirely evil. They’re simply humans trying to serve two masters. Morf genuinely cares about his responsibility as a critic (he is offended by Gretchen’s bribery), but he doesn’t hesitate to propose a deal with Rhodara which includes him taking two of Dease’s paintings and securing exclusive book rights. She has no qualms about what she does, as shown when she bullies Josephina in giving her control over Dease’s work. “You have to archive, catalog, establish ownership. And monetize,” she tells her antagonistically. “I’m willing to do all of that for…a reasonable percentage. You can engage me in an endless lawsuit, or…you can become rich and famous, and successful.”
As a former musician, she knows that art should be viewed as more than a cash cow. But for her, money is a juggernaut pointless of fighting. “None of this is new,” she says. “It’s all been done since someone charged a bone to see the first cave painting.”
The film’s criticism of moneys takeover of the creative realm is timely. For centuries, it has been a marker of success, but it feels even more so today. If the digital age has taught us anything, it’s that everything-from your macramé hobby to yourself-can be sold.
Of course, this is not a new concept. It’s simply that the internet has made it easier. In some ways this has been a positive, especially for creative types and entrepreneurs. The advent of social media canceled out the middle man of representation and PR teams, allowing artists to directly connect to their fan base. People inherently love to share and there was something refreshing about discovering an underground musician or artist while surfing the web. When someone vlogged an opinion on a mascara brand, you believed them because, hey, they’re weren’t some actress being paid to do so. They were like you. In a time when people were hungry for transparency, these platforms leveled the playing field. Don’t be fooled by the Fyre Festival scandal. Social influence is not a new game. It’s just a more lucrative one (as Billy McFarland will attest to).
Digital influencing is a great idea in theory, but it’s tricky because like any job, there are concessions you must make. Whether it’s to appease your fan base or sponsors, there’s a bending involved once you hit mainstream and suddenly the thing that made you powerful (yourself) has been rendered meaningless. We say that people are brands, but brands require consistency. Consistency is a tall order for most human beings. It’s no longer enough to be talented or to have a unique point of view to be noticed. You need an entourage of 10k followers and thousands of likes. Without them, you lack value and not in just the digital sphere but the world at large. As celebrities enter the digital playground (think the Hadids, Jenners), there is more pressure for the “average joe” influencer to curate himself to appear as just as appealing, just as lavish and perfect as they do. Gretchen was right-the rich do take over everything.
This seems to be what Gilroy wants to address in Buzzsaw. “I was very interested in the idea of where art and commerce were right now, and that’s not a very good place,” he recently told VICE. “I don’t think the quality of a work should be judged by the number of views or clicks or amount of pay. I mean, success does not diminish your work, but it doesn’t define it either. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really cool place to say that art is more than a commodity.’”
We all have the power to influence and it’s the abuse of this power that is a crime worthy of death in Velvet Buzzsaw. Rhodara, who dies the most horrendously, has the most influence amongst the characters. Morf may be god-like but she who controls who’s adored by the public (we later learn she’s been steering his reviews favorably in her clients direction without his knowledge).
Is she signing talented people? Probably. But there are many talented people and we assume that they fail to have their chance because of her manipulation. At the end of the day, she’s the biggest influencer of them all because she’s a marketer, and marketing is really just a game of smoke, mirrors, and slights of hand. “We don’t sell durable goods, we peddle perception,” she reminds Josephina.
Of course, as Billy McFarland and the influencers he paid to push his failed festival can attest to, selling perception doesn’t fly if you promise your customers something real. And while art’s value may be a little (a little) more subjective, it should come down to that primal feeling it invokes in the viewer. Contemporary artist Tracey Emin once said that “art is for everyone” but how can that be when its accessibility is so easily manipulated? The infiltration of money is the real evil force that Dease seeks to destroy. The pursuit of it and how it changes the true value of the work itself.
The ending of the film is rather ambiguous. All the major players meet their demise, but Dease’s work remains and continues to be sold; this time by homeless people unaware of its financial worth. As we view another painting going up for sale, there’s a sense that his spirit lives on. Perhaps not the murderous part, but the bit all artists leave in their work for us to muse over. Sometimes we see things and find a bigger meaning. Other times, not so much. Somethings are just pretty for pretty sake, and others worth can only be discovered after stripping down the layers of paint. Really, what else is a Velvet Buzzsaw than something that is beautiful, but cuts deep.