Velvet Buzzsaw: Satirising the politics of the art world

Velvet Buzzsaw, directed by Dan Gilroy – the director and writer of 2014’s sleeper hit Nightcrawler, is an American satirical mystery thriller. The film’s star studded cast include the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Zawe Ashton, Rene Russo, John Malkovich, Natalia Dyer and Toni Collette. This is the first collaboration of Dan Gilroy with all the aforementioned actors, excluding Jake Gyllenhaal, who once again dives boldly into a layered character with a lot of potential to be deployed.

The plot of the film revolves around the notion that art is seen by many as a tool for enormous profits and moral decisions are unprofessional to be made. The Haze Gallery is the art institution under our microscope, where the owner Rhodora Haze controls not only the collections to be exhibited, but the whole information flow concerning the art trends and the newly fledged artists. Part of the team working in the confines of this art institution includes the art critic Morf Vandewalt, the ambitious secretary Josephine, the modest assistant Coco and the confident art curator Gretchen.

The thread of mystery is tangled when Josephine enters into her building and discovers the dead body of her elderly neighbor, Vetril Dease, who serendipitously happens to be a painter. Josephine, who desires to be acclaimed in the art world and to be validated as a star exhibitor, steals Dease’s paintings after being told by an investigator that he explicitly wanted them to be burnt after his death. Josephine starts business with Rhodora and her gallery, turning Vetril Dease into a sensation throughout the art world and making his posthumous artwork worth millions. The thing that no one knows is that there is a curse on the collection and terrible things will happen to the people involved in the exhibition and selling of the Dease’s collection.                                                                                                                           

Through the use of the art world and the satirical anomalies shown on screen, Gilroy relays invaluable philosophical questions about art, culture and business. Gilroy plays with the hierarchies established in the art world and the prestige of criticism throughout the industry with Gyllenhaal’s character, Morf. In the opening scene we follow the art critic Morf, who enters the Art|Basel exhibition and we immediately notice that there is a hierarchy of professionalism, treating some as superstars of the art world. The people waiting in line to enter the exhibition claim that they were notified that their passes should be on the registering desk, yet they are refused entry. Meanwhile Morf glides past them, without any hassle, in a confident and proud manner. It is implied that he is the VIP of the event, that he is part of the whole art machine and his profession as a critic is valued above all else. Apart from the confident posture, Morf is indeed a portrait of the ultimate expert in his field, but because of his intimate relationship with Josephine he writes a bad review for the work of Josephine’s ex Ricky. This is an evidence that the present emotional affairs sometimes prevail over the moral professional duties.

Gilroy continues his assault on the politics of the art world with Russo’s character, Rhodora. Rhodora Haze is willing to cross any moral boundaries for the sake of extortionate profit. The power of profit and the status of success are the centre of her world – so much so that when presenting the Sphere (a contemporary metal sculpture) to Morf she concludes ‘It’s so much easier to talk about money than art.’ Later on an essential reference is made with the previous experience of Rhodora as a member of the band Velvet Buzzsaw, which gradually became a self-parody of their own unique style (a critique that is constantly feared by stylistic artists). Comparing the failure of the band (whose only trace of existence is a tattoo on the back of Rhodora neck – a piece of art, immortalised forever) with the gradual annihilation of the art institution by the destructive power of the decisions made by the gallery owner, it becomes clear that the transformation of art into material good created for the sole purpose of money is a reflection of the deadly result. The transformation of the band led to self-parody and therefore to an end, is a replica of the transformation of art, starting as a way of self-expression leading to a way for third parties to become exceedingly rich.

Even though Rhodora is the element that serves as an engine for the surreal entities from the paintings to take people’s lives, she gives the best advice to Piers, a washed up older artist, intimidated by the younger generation’s freedom within their art. She tells him to ‘take a break… until you do something for nobody but yourself.’ Piers’ purpose is to throw parts of his soul, spread out in colour on the blank canvas. He is the one that must stay true to himself, even if that would cost him oblivion and profit from the public. An implicit question regarding the worldview of art is raised by Josephine, who ends up as a protégé and mirror of Rhodora. She asks: ‘what’s the point of art if nobody sees it?’ Seeing Piers drawing circle patterns barefooted in the middle of a desert beach provides the answer: ‘Only trust in yourself can carry you past your fears and the already known.’

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Iveta Trifonova

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December 2021
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