“The Art of Making It” at DOC NYC – November 10-28, 2021 (Wendy Moscow)

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November 14, 2021.  Why do people make art? Is it about pleasing oneself? Garnering the attention of the art establishment? Making a political statement? Who controls the art market? Why do some artists with talent “make it” and others don’t? Is art just another commodity? Kelcey Edwards, director of “The Art of Making It” addresses these questions in a comprehensive (and sometimes distressing) exploration of the forces behind “success” in the art world. We meet up-and-coming artists at defining moments in their careers, voices of the established elite and critics of a system that preferences money over ideas.

Art students describe being strapped with enormous debt pursuing that MFA (and better if it’s from Yale, for some reason) which is the first requirement to even be considered by a gallery. Being picked up by a larger, more prestigious gallery (the Paces and Gagosians of this rarified world) is the next step in the food chain, the culmination of which is access to the “big” collectors – the gatekeepers of acceptability. Then, if you’re lucky, come museum shows, fame and fortune. I was horrified to learn, as a visual artist myself, that some super-rich art dealers buy up work for its monetary value, pack it away in a warehouse where no one sees it, then “flip” it when the value increases. What does it mean for us as a culture when the only art most people get to see (or maybe NOT see) is determined by a group of billionaire white men?

Helen Molesworth, curator, disrupter, and my favorite recurring interviewee in this film, describes the art world as a “small sectarian cult with its own belief systems […] and social morés.” She is smart, funny and cynical, an insider with an outsider’s perspective whose pithy observations anchor the film in a reality beyond this insular world.

This is a film about ideas about art, but it’s a film that also loves art and artists. Before we meet the amazing painter Gisele McDaniel, the camera moves sensually over her brushes, the paint on her palette, and the work itself. Most of the people she portrays (with lush canvases full of color) have been through trauma (as has she), and there is an aspect of healing to her work. We see her creating a powerful mural on a public wall. If museums are an “18th century idea in the 21st century,” according to Helen Molesworth, then isn’t it preferable for an artist like McDaniel to be seen by many than by the privileged few?

Chris Watts, who focuses on trauma in the Black community (for example, the police shooting of Philando Castille), says, “I don’t play the system well.” He speculates that one reason he was kicked out of Yale graduate school was because his art was too politically charged.

Many of the artists and critics decry the way the system militates against innovation. What was “bohemian, underground and cool” (Helen Molesworth) has been subverted by money. But there are ways of being creative outside that system. Described as a gentrifier he loves by long-time Brooklyn resident Hammer, gallery owner Nick Cueva worked with local artists to actualize a fun and accessible place for creatives and the community. Andrew Gori and Ambre Kelly, curators of Spring/Break, do something similar, giving emerging, non-mainstream artists a chance to be seen in an immersive, people-friendly environment.

My biggest criticism of the film is its constant repetition of the “food chain” metaphor. (Yes, we get it…) What this film does best (besides sharing beautiful, moving and provocative art with us) is ask a series of essential questions, similar to those posed at the beginning. To whom does art belong? Who benefits from its sale? How does money control what gets seen? And most importantly, how can new economic models become more inclusive of women, BIPOCs and those who may not have the resources to follow the prescribed establishment path? Can the new models (even NFTs!) actually celebrate the creative process while providing artists with a living wage? Kelcey Edwards ends on a hopeful note. May the disrupters win.

About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

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