The apparent thesis of director Barry Avrich’s new documentary, Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World — that the art world might benefit from some regulation — will surprise exactly no one who works in the industry. Neither will much of his footage.
Divided into multiple segments — “Artists,” “Dealers,” “Collectors,” “Museums,” “Auction Houses,” “Fairs,” etc. — the film first introduces the major sectors of the art world and then offers an assessment. Artists, with a few highlighted exceptions (Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst), proclaim their devotion to their work and aversion to issues related to the market. Art fairs come across as soulless playgrounds, comparable to shopping malls. The featured dealers range from art enthusiasts to market manipulators. Curators and biennials receive brief mentions, while art publicists get none. Avrich interviews multiple critics, but art publications seemingly don’t merit their own section — maybe next time, some of the previously unmentioned publicists could help elevate our profile. The titular phrase comes from an interview, early in the film, with Museum of Modern Art Director Glenn Lowry, who speaks about the difficulties of defining contemporary art. The title grows to encompass the tenuous divisions between art making and commerce, collectors and institutions, “good” and “bad” art.
Certainly, Avrich has assembled a crack team. Throughout the film, big name interviewees include artists Marina Abramović, Rashid Johnson, Adam Pendleton, Sterling Ruby, Julian Schnabel, and Taryn Simon; gallerists David Kordansky and Lawrence Luhring; museum directors Michael Govan and Lowry; collectors Valeria Napoleone and Michael Ovitz; writer Sarah Thornton; and auction powerhouse Amy Cappellazzo. Blurred Lines offers those unfamiliar with the ecosystem an easy-to-follow account of a murky, entangled field. Avrich creates a fun, exciting film that highlights the quirky characters and questionable antics that govern a very, very niche community. His attempt at racial and gender diversity among his interviewees is laudable, though it would have been nice if he’d also explored how issues of inequity still shape the market.
Watching the film with some insider knowledge of the art world offers different pleasures and insights. First of all, you might recognize how quickly things change. Avrich includes a photograph of dealer Larry Gagosian with his arm around Schnabel who, last spring, defected from his powerhouse gallery to join rival Pace. Brett Gorvy speaks as Chairman and International Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, while shots of Dominique Lévy seem to foreshadow his impending partnership with the dealer. Andrea Rosen, who closed her Chelsea space this past winter, speaks as a major gallerist. These shifts, which of course Avrich couldn’t have foretold, give credence to the larger themes of instability, uncertainty, and flux that he highlights. It’s not just the prices of art or the mood of the market that are volatile: it’s also the people who inhabit this fast-paced, bizarre world, and the positions available to them. This creates a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. Is the art world wild because eccentric people gravitate toward and end up running it, or do its inherent structures (whatever those may be) and lack of regulation drive people crazy?
Avrich also highlights some winning juxtapositions. The film opens with footage related to the September 15, 2008 bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers, immediately followed by footage from the next day’s Hirst auction at Sotheby’s, Beautiful in My Head Forever, which raised $200.7 million. The disconnect between art market stakeholders and the rest of the world becomes immediately apparent. “There is a certain kind of intellectual snobbery that comes with dismissing all art fairs as some horrible event that just sees the unfolding of a venal art world at its maximum expression,” Lowry reprimands, as two bald drag queens with bright pink purses, ostensibly in the center of a fair, emerge on screen. Critic Christian Viveros-Fauné proclaims, “culture gets hurt,” and Avrich cuts to footage of an art fair.
However, the director avoids acknowledging more complicating details, like the fact that Gagosian, whom he characterizes as an enigma and a perpetrator of art world evils, also represents artist Taryn Simon, whom he portrays as an advocate for art making free from financial consideration. Gagosian isn’t merely an enigmatic villain, Koons and Hirst are only two of the artists he has represented (Hirst left in 2012), and artists are complicit in their gallery representation as well. Avrich doesn’t reveal much complexity in any of his characters, which would have been a more difficult and perhaps stylistically inappropriate choice, though maybe a more interesting one, too.
As a kind of Art World 101, a call for regulation, and a who’s-who primer, Blurred Lines works. As a piece of art, it can seem a bit simplistic. The film fails to raise interesting new questions or delve deeply into unexplored territory. The end of the film seeks to answer why anyone should care about art market issues at all. The interviewees suggest that artists care because the market operates to their detriment, and that that’s the biggest problem with the whole system. Again, probably not a novel notion if you’re already reading this website, but a nice reminder nonetheless.