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“The museum is a participatory social space,” Klaus Biesenbach, director of MoMA PS1 and Chief Curator at Large for MoMA, said to an eager crown of 200 in his introductory address for this inaugural edition of his Summer School series. Modeled after the salon style teaching more commonly practiced in European arts capitals, PS1’s two-part lecture series was offered free to undergraduates.
After hearing about the opportunity through a filmmaker friend’s tweet, applying and getting accepted, I found myself privy to a bizarre but fascinating public conversation wrapped up in the complicated intersection of contemporary art, economics, celebrity and performance.
PS1 presented a project room filled with a selection of James Franco’s video works, and grouping of photographs, films and scripts curated by Gus Van Sant. Franco was joined by Francisco J. Ricardo, theorist and RISD professor, as well as Laurel Nakadate, who’s first solo show at a major US arts institution, Only The Lonely, recently finished its run at the museum.
I realized halfway through the first class that a big part of what drew me to Summer School (besides my general attraction to all things free, educational and arty) was a kind of personal test. As an artist, curator and critic, could I come into Franco’s work without all the bullshit? Could I buy into James Franco, the artist? Much has been made of Franco’s recent and rapid rise to art-stardom, from a previous post here, and the seminal post-General Hospital piece in New York Magazine. The spectacle has managed to infiltrate not only his native Hollywood, but the art world’s young and hot glitterati, academia and daytime television. He’s everywhere — continually the recipient of powerful support, expansive resources, public attention and in daily conversation between young creatives.
Even when we’re sick of him, or simply uninterested, our collective fatigue and disinterest reinstates him on the mainstage: everybody’s talking about Franco, at least for a few more minutes.
At one moment: he had me. As Franco described his frustrations with the limitations of mainstream acting, the ways in which actors are “slave to narrative” and powerless to directorial oversight: I believed him. Whatever it is inside an artist, or any other cultural producer, that insists you must make, James seems like he has it. That hunger — to take in new information; absorb culture, history, imagery; and produce new ways to look at them all — seems to be running through Franco’s bloodstream. As much as his exceptional circumstances might frustrate us as an artistic community, we’re all alike in that regard. Within a few minutes of this particular tangent of his first lecture, he continued on to discuss his fear about fore-fronting himself in his video work: “I was scared to put myself in them because people will read it as Freaks & Geeks.”
Whatever sense of Franco artistic authenticity hit me for a few moments of convincing earnestness, I’m overwhelmed with another wave of Franco fatigue. Franco’s unrivalable access to the art world’s attention and top-notch resources downgrades the believability of his hesitancy about constructing James the artist too closely to James the Hollywood actor: could he really go wrong? What’s the risk? So far, pretty much anything he can make will end up in a show somewhere respectable, if not within the tight circle of major institutions who show new work of living artists.
The second week of class brought in a new voice, one for which the film kids around me could barely contain their excitement. Gus Van Sant, auteur and art-house icon, as well as Franco collaborator, joined the discussion. I heard it more than once in the self-aware banter that is undergraduate time-killing: “I mean Franco was interesting, but Gus is going to be here.”
The course, and accompanying exhibition were introduced as a collaborative effort between the artist-director pair: Gus Van Sant and James Franco: My Own Private River. We heard about Van Sant’s development as filmmaker, his varying experiences with traversing the spectrum of Hollywood to indie film, the details of working with an actor as iconic as River Phoenix on a film as iconic as My Own Private Idaho.
When discussion turned to Van Sant’s current projects, he brought up the pilot for Boss, a TV series starring Kelsey Grammar for the premium subscription channel Starz. He emphasized the difference creating a film and a cable television series. While he’s reached the point in his career where his films can break from the contraints of mainstream, box-office bound cinema, making subscription entertainment requires a distinct “pay cable moment.” As opposed to his art house endeavors less tied to ticket sales, creating a show for a channel that requires a monthly fee means there has to be some kind of essential, sexy reason for viewers to open their wallets.
After several students posed questions both subtly and bluntly interrogating both men’s ability to participate in both questionable, if blockbuster and buzz-filled, arty success, both Franco and Van Sant defined a clear difference between their projects in the commercial realm of Hollywood film and those created within the supposed freedom of the art world. As Beisenbach alluded to in his introductory remarks, both men reinforced the idealistic belief in a sphere of artistic production outside of the demands of the market and beyond the limitations of access.
Both Van Sant’s original My Own Private Idaho and Franco’s edit, My Own Private River, were assigned as prerequisite homework for the lecture series. The reactive Franco work includes a refashioning of the Van Sant original with the addition of selections from over twenty-seven hours of unused film. We kept hearing about this unseen, archived actual, physical film stashed away in Portland. Part of Franco’s drive to cut his own version of Idaho revolves around his interest in breaking apart narrative structure, a freedom he locates in his practice as an artist, rather than as an actor.
Veiled behind this continual reference to unseen footage is a kind of complicated exclusivity, an inner circle nature, so much a part of contemporary art as a practice and market. We students could not see this archive of Van Sant’s film. The raw uncut record of the experience of River Pheonix’s best performance only reaches us through a directorial filter, whether in the form of a feature film or a video project. It is a question of access: admittedly, the art sphere can provide an easier platform from which to launch unprofitable or conceptual ideas, but it does not fall outside the pushes and pulls of economic realities or the flash pan of art celebrity. The lecture was fixated on progression of each of the participating artists’ practice. A grand trajectory was being drawn for us aspiring students: of the moment of artistic realization, the commitment to practice, that leap into risk. The story of how to succeed as an artist was told to us, sort of.
Perhaps, more accurately, the student audience was provided with a loosely constructed narrative of the evolution of an art star. In a contemporary global art market that creates its own celebrities, I began to see picture of persona. Both Nakadate and Franco, and Van Sant’s filmic practice to some extent, confront questions of performativity, persona, celebrity and interrogate the artist-as-actor, actor-as-artist. The two young, hot artlets are themselves bound to an unavoidable market of persona within the art world. Even museums need their “pay cable” moment, and when solo shows happen to be both good (or good enough) and have a pretty young thing with buzz behind the helm, that crucial opportunity arises.
While it certainly helps an artist’s career to get press, be pictured in the right places, on the arm of the right person, the hype minefield can be difficult to navigate, especially for a fresh career in its early stages of development. This issue with Franco isn’t really about the his work. Everything that’s been said about the quality — potentially good, but underdeveloped — is true. The real issue at the heart of Franco’s success, and the surrounding conversation embodied by the discussion generated at PS1, is a question of access to resources and what that means for the artistic practice. Sitting in a room of young, passionate creatives electrified this tension: how do we get what we need to turn vision into reality? And why does Franco get it all?
For one of our homework assignment, PS1 invited us to create our own edit of My Own Private Idaho, a few of which were selected and screened in front of the class and celebrity professors. The opportunity was an exciting one — a reason to create, a clear endpoint for showing, the chance to get feedback from highly respected and iconic artists. Yet, again, the task highlighted a complex tension in today’s art market: viewing Van Sant’s film is certainly inspiring, and offers endless possibility for jumping off into a new original work, yet the process requires many resources, including a digital file of the film and Final Cut editing software fluency. Summer School existed in the midst of frustrating complexities between cultural production and the art market. In the end, though, I left with my brain buzzing. Even now, weeks later, I’m still talking about it.