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The Top 10 Art Documentaries to Watch on Netflix Instant

by Megan Youngblood on June 14, 2013

I like to think of the mythical Netflix Marathon as the process of accumulating inspiration, but it could be more realistically dubbed procrastination. Either way, it has become a talent I’ve honed to perfection, one that I desperately need to figure out a way to work into my résumé.

One of my personal favorite genres on which to cinematographically gorge myself is the art documentary. Here’s a list of 10 documentaries on art and visual culture available to stream on Netflix (in no particular order) that will fill you with creative inspiration — or, perhaps more accurately, help you delay the project with an impending deadline just a little bit longer.

1. Style Wars (1983) >>

Style Wars (1983) (image via)

Style Wars (image via)

Style Wars has become an iconic film with an almost cult following in young creative communities. Its ubiquity aside, Style Wars is a great documentary on the graffiti movement in New York City and has been followed up with numerous others covering graffiti in other parts of the world such as Piece by Piece, Graffiti Verite, Next, and Bomb It.

2. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) >>

Exit Through the Gift Shop (image via)

Exit Through the Gift Shop (image via)

This documentary tells the story of street art from our current decade, with the focus on Shepard Fairey and Banksy. The playfully rebellious nature of these graffiti artists is bound to inspire your inner angst-filled teenager to want to write on your bedroom walls something lamenting “The System.” The film also has a vaguely self-deprecating tone, which keeps it from being pretentious.

3. Beautiful Losers (2008) >>

Beautiful Losers (image via)

Beautiful Losers (image via)

Beautiful Losers opens with photographer Ed Templeton playing an accordion in front of (presumably) his suburban home. I’ll let you judge where that would lie on the continuum of hipsterdom. Regardless, this documentary features some of today’s great artists, who talk about everything from childhood dreams of being a garbage man to finding a friend’s head in Dragon Park. The artists in this documentary, including Barry McGee, Harmony Korine, Mike Mills and Aaron Rose, represent the aesthetic that our generation will likely be posthumously recognized for: a DIY combination of punk, graffiti, and skateboard culture.

4. Bill Cunningham’s New York (2010) >>

bill-cunningham-new-york-1-1

Bill Cunningham’s New York (image via)

Before there were dozens of blogs with street photos by self-appointed fashion experts, there was Bill Cunningham, a staple in the New York fashion scene known for snapping photos of the fashion-conscious throughout New York City. Although typically his lens’s focus is on the beautiful fashionistas he documents for the New York Times Style Section, this documentary focuses on the photographer, highlighting his warm persona, small apartment, and meticulous attention to detail.

5. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010) >>

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child (image via)

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child (image via)

Another documentary that transports viewers back to 1970s and ’80s New York, this documentary exposes Jean-Michel Basquiat’s experience in lower Manhattan. Basquiat’s work is now regarded as some of the most influential and important work of his era. His rapid escalation into fame left him disoriented, depressed, and addicted to drugs, and although he died prematurely, his work remains.

If this time period in New York is of particular interest to you, try to follow it up with Limelight, a documentary about club owner Peter Gatien and how Rudy Giuliani took the fun out of everything.

6. Our City Dreams (2008) >>

Chiara Clementa, director of Our City Dreams, on location (image via)

Chiara Clementa, director of Our City Dreams, on location (image via)

This film follows the creative paths of three female artists living in New York City. Each of the artists presents a unique work process and style and discusses her indestructible ties to the city. There is something TED talk–ish about this film, with a very intimate, feminist, pro–New York message. Watch this one if you are looking to get some inspiration to paint — I practically ran to my sketchpad when it ended.

7. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012) >>

Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry (image via)

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (image via)

The extremely talented and controversial Ai Weiwei was thrown into the international consciousness when he spoke out against the Beijing Olympics after designing its centerpiece. The conversations with the artists and studio assistant in the film create a portrait of the Chinese artist that’s more intimate than his usual depictions in Western media. And like Ai Weiwei himself, the interviewees are witty, opinionated, and often dissidents in their own right.

8. Indie Game: The Movie (2011) >>

Indie Game: The Movie (image via)

Indie Game: The Movie (image via)

Game designers are artists, and anyone who doesn’t believe that should see this film. This movie documents the creation of Meat Boy and Fez, two highly anticipated independent games that are slowly driving their creators insane. The film reveals the creation process, highlighting how stressful this combination of right-brained coding and left-brained design work is.

9. The Woodmans (2010) >>

The Woodmans (image via)

The Woodmans (image via)

The haunting photos of Francesca Woodman made a New York appearance in an exhibit at the Guggenheim last year. Woodman’s untimely suicide only enhances the mysterious and dark beauty of her images. Her family members, who are all accomplished artists as well, talk about her naturally provocative temperament and the way this translated into her work.

10. Waste Land (2010) >>

Waste Land (image via)

Waste Land (image via)

In this documentary, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz travels to one of the world’s largest landfills in Rio de Janeiro and reappropriates trash to create intricate portraits of the Brazilian trash pickers, who live off of the recyclables they find. He incorporates them into the creative process, making the film as much about them and their introduction to art as it is about Muniz himself.

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  • Jeffrey Thompson Art

    I would Add Art 21

  • yoonikim

    I would put Beauty is Embarrassing in my top ten.

  • Audrey Tolbert

    To add a non-contemporary piece: The Rape of Europa.
    http://movies.netflix.com/Movie/The-Rape-of-Europa/70079691

  • JosephYoung

    A Model for Matisse. Was the aging artist in love with a nun?

  • Simon Fleming

    How to draw a bunny is a great doc. can’t include everything I suppose.

    • JosephYoung

      it’s never been on netflix the many times i’ve looked. not on amazon instant either. boo.

  • Lauren

    It’s embarrassing that Beauty is Embarrassing is not on this list.

  • Schmo Greene

    Degenerate Art would be another one.

  • Jason Yang

    Two movies should be on top of this list. Marwencol and The Art of the Steal. Marwencol shows the redemptive power of art probably better than any other documentary. The Art of the Steal should be seen by anyone who cares about art.

    • Shauna D.

      Agreed, these were the two that came to my mind. Really good.

  • http://www.artatbay.com/ Danny Olda

    Heard ‘Brief Encounters’, the doc on Gregory Crewdson, just got added

    • dblockdotorg

      Watched it and loved it. I saw many of his works, offline and online, but never paid enough attention.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=578586926 Kristian Narvesen Nammack

    Herb and Dorothy.

  • bhoggard

    “Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies” is great.

    • Adrienne Callander

      This one is incredible – the story is told so well (the link between Cubism and the rise of cinema) – and by Scorsese, no less.

  • PY_Worcester

    Love this selection, agree Marwencol should be added. Andy Goldsworthy’s Of Rivers and Tides definitely in my top 10, for the experience of watching him create work designed to vanish.

  • Evan

    The image for Style Wars is not from the movie Style Wars FYI

  • JAlphaDelta

    Why would anyone want to watch a documentary about a bunch off hoodie wearing thugs who vandalize property, refuse to grow up, create nothing of lasting value, have no articulable political agenda, and don’t care about anyone but themselves and their infantile so-called “art” form.

  • Darlene Stoll-Ochoa

    Between the Folds will blow your mind

  • http://jonathancanady.com/ Jonathan Canady

    The Anselm Kiefer doc “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow” was recently added to Netflix Instant. It is simply mind blowing.

  • liminallondoner

    Orson Wells’ F is for Fake http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWZUG0-nn_Q

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