If you read this site frequently*, this will not shock you (otherwise you sit down?), but the art world is currently grappling with myriad problems such as exploitation, wage inequality, sexism, racism, ableism and many more, often on several overlapping systemic and institutional levels. For those who didn’t keep up, the new documentation The art of making it serves as a reasonably useful primer of the situation. Although it lays no formal foundation whatsoever, director Kelcey Edwards and her crew have had decent 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 getting pretty much equal weight and attention. But while the film highlights many problems, it does so with little depth, and its proposed solutions are severely lacking.
The film shares a producer with the 2018 doc the price of everything and at times feels like a companion piece or a spiritual sequel. Nathaniel Kahn’s film dealt with the financialization of the art world, how today expensive works are often little more than one type of asset among many to those who buy and sell them, with aesthetic concerns and meaning far behind. By examining what it is like to be a working artist today, Edwards shows us the implications of this paradigm. Again, their findings are known to anyone who was paying attention, but nonetheless sobering. Since all the money is concentrated at the top and the artists aren’t supported below, it’s almost impossible to balance be one working artist more. Galleries and museums have no answers (and often little to no interest in finding them), and the usefulness of MFAs and other institutional avenues of advancement seems increasingly questionable.
The film’s approach to its subject is rather choppy, as it moves from one idea to the next with shaky justification – the all-too-common “check-box” non-fiction approach. Some of his interviews feel like wasted opportunities; Helen Molesworth contributes little other than dropping succinct one-line descriptions of other characters and events when they are mentioned. Critics are generally used for fairly generic platitudes. At one end of the spectrum is Dave Hickey, who is sullen and cynical, while at the other end, Jerry Saltz offers encouraging but extremely general advice for young artists. “Creativity is in every bone in our body. 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 film’s ad, which feels like the image of Obama awarding himself a medal.)
Such mixed messages are emblematic of how the The range of the documentary can at times seem more confused than eclectic. This is particularly acute when establishment figures like Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak discuss institutional issues, which carries more than a touch 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 quite impressive that Stefan Simchowitz can instantly bring a queasy chill into a room, even if he just enters it through your TV screen.
A constant refusal to go into details frustrates The art of making it. A prominent subplot follows Chris Watts, who was released from Yale’s MFA program after just a year, and the film is oddly vague about why and how that happened. With few exceptions, like McDaniel’s, the film doesn’t do much to examine the artists’ actual works, which seems to contradict its own ethos. A recurring stumbling block is that while many interlocutors discuss the need for reform in this milieu, few have an idea of what it might look like. (I would say that you cannot solve structural problems inherent in capitalism by approaches based on the same assumptions, but I am only a modest critic.) That’s the problem with “disorder” as a concept – it’s vague , and the people who talk about it can often only point to a technological solution that has only made things worse. And indeed, the film buys into the NFT grip and is coming out now, having already been largely discredited. That the document is already so dated does not bode well for its authority.
The art of making it can be streamed on various VOD platforms.
* Hyperallergic cameo via quotes as pop-up visuals from news headlines in the documentary, so I hope we were a helpful resource for the filmmakers.