Celebrity vs Culture: The James Franco-fication of Art World

Douglas Gordon"Self Portrait of You + Me and Me + You + You + Me + Me + You (02)," 2011© Studio lost but found / Katharina Kiebacher

At the press preview for "Rebel," James Franco's latest art world gambit, Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeffrey Deitch commented that the eight artists in the exhibition became actors playing themselves as artists. Or something like that. The logic of celebrity in the art world can seem wondrously elliptical: Art by celebrities garners attention because it's made by celebrities, and artists often become celebrities for making art about fame. It seems pop will eat itself.

Sylvester Stallone, Joni Mitchell, Jane Seymour, and a host of other famous folk have taken up a brush to make beautiful, if rather conventional landscapes and abstractions. Franco, by contrast, more avidly adopts the language of contemporary art, with video as his medium and Hollywood as his subject. "Rebel," a multimedia extravaganza filling the capacious event space JF Chen, riffs on the teenage angst classic, "Rebel Without a Cause." Designed to look like a warren of Hollywood bungalows, it includes Franco's videos, as well as commissioned works by some heavy hitters from the world of art: Douglas Gordon, Paul and Damon McCarthy, Terry Richardson, and Ed Ruscha, among others. Filled with images of (mostly female) nudity, simulated bodily fluids, and smashed vehicles, it's a star-studded descent into the darker side of Hollywood legend -- bad boys contemplating archetypal bad boys. It seems intended to strip the veneer off the myth of teenage rebellion, as if it hasn't already been standing there naked for a long time.

There's nothing wrong with making art about what you know, and it makes sense that an actor should make art about Hollywood. It's not the subject of "Rebel" that rankles so much as the attention it garners. It's quite a feat for a young artist to win not only the cultural imprimatur of the museum, but the budget to commission new works from established artists and to turn a warehouse into a detailed facsimile of a bungalow complex, complete with a small swimming pool and real plants (surely there's some irony in using real plants to decorate a fake set.) It goes without saying that Franco's fame outside the art world had something to do with such extravagant measures.

MOCA has become quite the showcase for both artist celebrities and celebrity artists. In recent years, it has mounted a large retrospective of work by Dennis Hopper, and a bombastic one by Takashi Murakami. Its controversial show of graffiti art, "Art in the Streets," drew huge crowds to see works by the likes Shepard Fairey and Banksy. The museum's contribution to the recent, massive art initiative, Pacific Standard Time, was an exhibition of Hollywood-related photographs by Weegee. It has also hosted a taping of Franco's appearance on the soap opera General Hospital, reframed as performance art.

It's appropriate that the leading contemporary art institution in Los Angeles should reflect the culture around it, but more cynical aims haunt the exhibition. By featuring the work of Franco and other celebrities, MOCA hitches its wagon to the star power of Hollywood, attracting new, presumably younger and hipper audiences. And while artists like Ruscha and McCarthy need no help establishing their artistic credentials, Franco's association with them seems designed to bolster his own. As Baird Jones, the late art world gossip journalist, wrote, celebrities "despite their accomplishments in their respective fields still turned to fine art to establish their true creativity."

Harmony Korine<br /> 'Caput' 2011.<br /> Photo courtesy of the artist
Harmony Korine 'Caput' 2011. Photo courtesy of the artist

While Jones bought into the myth of the pure artist untouched by market imperatives, in many cases, celebrities from Ringo Starr to Peter Falk to Marilyn Manson have found art to be a lucrative side business. Jones compared it to the trade in autographs -- fans simply want something, anything, created or touched by a celebrity. "The people who take art seriously," he wrote, "are rarely the same people who care about celebrityhood."

Whether or not this statement rings true depends on how you define the word "seriously." Spending millions on one of Damien Hirst's ubiquitous polka dot paintings seems pretty "serious." Then again, so does spending $50,000 on an abstract canvas by Sylvester Stallone. Of course, Hirst and Stallone hang out in distinct parts of the cultural firmament, and the people purchasing their works presumably come from equally disparate social strata, with different motives. Yet their desires are actually not so far apart--they all want a piece of a celebrity brand.

Despite its protestations to the contrary, the art world, like Hollywood, has always operated according to a cult of personality. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Picasso were all exemplary artists, but at some point, they became brand names, too.

Warhol understood this, and artists like Jeff Koons, Hirst, and Murakami have taken this insight to new heights with ever larger and more expensive "signature" projects. Art has always maintained an aura of authenticity by claiming a critical distance for its products. Warhol's soup can paintings are not just still-lifes; they are comments on mass production and advertising. Koons' sculptures of himself and his porn star wife having sex aren't pornographic; they poke fun at kitschy collectibles. And Murakami's integration of a fully operational Louis Vuitton store inside his MOCA retrospective wasn't crass commercialism, it was the leveling of the art market, right?

The designation "art" provides an umbrella under which all of these things can be created and looked at from a certain distance. As I've argued in a previous Artbound piece, art can serve as a giant arrow that directs our attention to something new, or makes us appreciate familiar things in new ways. But what happens when the things it allows are simply available everywhere else? What if Murakami's Vuitton store was just a Vuitton store? And Koons' sculptures just pornography? And Warhol's soup cans? Perhaps they really are just fan boy images he made of a product he liked.

Still what we "buy" (into) when we consume these works is more than a purse or porn or a painting; it's a brand. (It's not surprising that two of "Rebel's" sponsors are Gucci and Seven For All Mankind). We've long since torn down the shibboleth of art for art's sake only to replace it with the glossy monolith of value for value's sake.

In that sense, art participates in the same magical thinking as the gold standard or celebrity: something or someone is valuable or famous, well, because they are valuable or famous. Franco's "Rebel" isn't "about" Hollywood, it is Hollywood. And although Hollywood is itself another kind of sheltered playground, "Rebel" fails to take advantage of art's giant arrow and becomes another episode of boys behaving badly.

Something we already know all too well.  


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