If you’re a frequent reader of this website*, this won’t come as a shock to you (otherwise, are you sitting down?), but the art world currently faces myriad issues of exploitation, pay inequity, sexism, racism, ableism, and much more, often on multiple intersecting systemic and institutional levels. For those who haven’t been keeping up, the new documentary The Art of Making It serves as a reasonably useful primer on the situation. While it breaks no formal ground whatsoever, director Kelcey Edwards and her crew had a decent level of access to artists, critics, teachers, buyers, and collectors of diverse backgrounds and statuses. There are up-and-comers like Gisela McDaniel, established veterans like Andrea Bowers, and many in between like Sebastian Errazuriz and Felipe Baeza, all given fairly equal weight and attention. But while the film lays out many problems, it does so with little depth, and its proposed solutions are sorely lacking.
The movie shares a producer with the 2018 doc The Price of Everything, and at times feels like a companion piece or spiritual sequel to it. Nathaniel Kahn’s film delved into the financialization of the art world, how in contemporary times expensive works are often little more than one kind of asset among many to those buying and selling them, with aesthetic concerns and meaning taking a distant backseat. In surveying what it is like to be a working artist right now, Edwards is showing us the consequences of this paradigm. Her findings are, again, familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention, but sobering nonetheless. With all the money concentrated at the top and no support for artists at the bottom, it’s nearly impossible to even be a working artist anymore. Galleries and museums have no answers (and often little to no interest in finding them), and the utility of MFAs and other institutional pathways for advancement look increasingly questionable.
The film’s approach to its subject matter is rather scattershot, as it moves from one idea to another with shaky justification — the all-too-common “box-ticking” nonfiction approach. Some of its interviews feel like wasted opportunities; Helen Molesworth contributes little besides dropping pithy one-line descriptors of other figures and events as they’re mentioned. Critics in general are invoked for fairly broad platitudes. On one end of the spectrum is Dave Hickey to be grouchy and cynical, while on the other end is Jerry Saltz to offer encouraging but extremely generic advice for young artists. “Creativity is in every bone in our bodies. It’s one of the most advanced operating systems our species has ever invented.” Okay, thanks, Jerry. (Saltz’s affirmative quote is featured in the movie’s promotion, which feels like that image of Obama awarding a medal to himself.)
Such mixed messaging is emblematic of how the documentary’s panoply can sometimes feel more confused than eclectic. This is particularly acute when establishment figures like Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak discuss institutional problems, which carries more than a whiff of “We’re all trying to find the guy who did this!” (Please forgive my second meme reference in as many paragraphs.) Though it is rather impressive that Stefan Simchowitz can instantly bring an uneasy chill to a room even if he’s only entering it via your TV screen.
A continual refusal to drill into specifics thwarts The Art of Making It. One prominent subplot follows Chris Watts, who was dismissed from the MFA program at Yale after just one year, and the film is oddly vague over just why and how that happened. With a few exceptions, like with McDaniel, the film doesn’t do much to explore the actual works the artists create, which would seem to contradict its own ethos. One recurring stumbling block is that, while many interviewees discuss the need for reform in this milieu, few can offer an idea of what that might look like. (I would offer that you can’t fix structural issues inherent to capitalism through approaches based on the same set of assumptions, but I am but a humble critic.) That’s the problem with “disruption” as a concept — it’s vague, and the people talking it up often can only point to technological solutionism, which has only ever made anything worse. And sure enough, the film buys into the NFT grift, and now comes out after it’s already been mostly discredited. That the doc is already dated in such a way doesn’t bode well for its authority.
The Art of Making It is available to stream on various VOD platforms.
* Hyperallergic actually cameos via citations as pop-up visuals of news headlines in the documentary, so I hope we were a helpful resource for the filmmakers.