Stealing the rather amazing show of California Surrealists at the UCLA-Armand Hammer Museum ('Pacific Dreams' curated by Susan Ehrlich) is the 1951 commissioned portrait of studio head and Hollywood legend Jack Warner, painted by Salvador Dali. Dali breezed in and out of LA in the 40s, nabbing portrait commissions, working on a project with Hitchcock (the dream sequence of Spellbound in 1945) and developing sketches for an unrealised feature for Disney, Destino. Warner, whose Beverly Hills mansion was a decorator showplace, was eager to impress his guests with portraits of his wife and himself painted by the famous European artist.
Looming in the foreground of his formal garden, Happy Jack smiles cheesily, staring glassy-eyed into space, one hand petting a feral-looking terrier whose eye looks frighteningly human. The serene dog, of course, has a sensitivity and intelligence missing in his master. Appropriately, this notorious enemy of Hollywood screenwriters holds an empty sheet of paper. Warner was after all the man who once bragged, 'I'd rather take a 50 mile hike than crawl through a book. I prefer to skip the long ones and get a synopsis from the story department.'
Although Dali's dubious money-making schemes famously caused André Breton to dub the artist with the anagram, 'Avida Dollars', Avida clearly had his limits. Just as Goya depicted The Family of Charles IV as bloated, pompous nudniks, Dali dared to bite the manicured hand that fed him. Pursuing a surrealist's penchant for the grotesque, Dali lingers over Warner's appearance with an attentiveness that translates into caricature. Like Goya, Dali keeps the straight face of the successful satirist, skewering his subject by fetishising every tawdry detail: Warner's Rotary Club pin, his gold ring, the pocket pouf, those fingernails. The fake, too-blue sky also seems designed to backdrop the wax-museum pallour of the cheeseball sitter and emphasise his artfully processed vanity. While his studio produced great films, Jack Warner was one of Hollywood's archetypal vulgarians, a man known for his crude jokes and ruthless business practices. 30s screenwriter Wilson Mizner once tellingly stated, 'Working for Warner Brothers is like fucking a porcupine. It's one prick against a hundred.' It remains pure pleasure to see Warner raked over the coals by a painter who was undoubtedly receiving top dollar for the honour.
Only this summer, the media heralded the rise of Michael Ovitz, one of current Hollywood's leading vulgarians, to the Number Two position at Disney. In his former position as head of mega-agency CAA, Ovitz helped invent media-marketing, wresting decision-making power away from the movie studios by forcing them to accept pre-formed 'packages' of CAA directors, actors, and writers, thus further reducing the possibility of making good films. With his frightening clout, Ovitz brought his agency huge sums of money while astronomically increasing the incomes and power of dull, inept actors such as Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, and Tom Cruise. Ovitz's threats and powerplays have shaped the environment for 90s mega-budget, pre-marketed Hollywood product. The business practices he initiated have significantly contributed to the abysmal decline in quality of American film in the past two decades. Meanwhile, in a slew of articles, the Los Angeles Times gushingly welcomed the agent to the Disney throne, claiming that his employment decision was nothing short of 'seismic.' They reported that his acceptance of the new job was the result of 'soul searching,' quoting a besotted source who speculated that it must have been time for Ovitz 'to climb a new mountain.' This for the man that negotiated $20 million a picture for Sly Stallone?
Every day the world seems to be further and further in the thrall of blockbuster movies, celebrity hamburger joints, production t-shirts, weekend box office charts, tabloid updates, cosmetic spokesperson controversies, studio-sponsored infomercials, Malibu real estate developments, supermodel acting critiques, and basketball players' Nike campaigns. With the corporate mergers of the 90s, we are being ruled by a new generation of robber barons. The blind greed of industry characters like Ovitz, Ron Meyer, Michael Eisner, David Geffen, Sherry Lansing, Dawn Steele, and Jeffrey Katzenberg cries out to be - if not condemned - at least satirised.
Yet satire of Hollywood royalty is a local taboo. In the midst of the recent brouhaha, Hugh Grant stated that he was most aware of American humourlessness when he jokingly suggested to the now former CAA honchos Mike Ovitz and Ron Meyer that they consider taking a fee of less than 15% of his salary. Ovitz and Meyer were not amused. Humour seems to threaten these powermongers and the industry is afraid to ruffle the feathers of Hollywood's touchy 'bad cops.' With regard to Ovitz, the LA Times quoted an anonymous agent: 'People would feel that some kind of retribution would visit them if they got on his wrong side.' The threat of a 'You'll never work in this town again' from the likes of Ovitz sends shivers down the studios' backlots.
So who is left to satirise all this but the unempowered art world? Ironically enough, art - for all its mass media irrelevance - is the Hollywood moguls' badge of prestige. Today they are not content with just a commissioned portrait. Upping the ante, these power freaks have bought art world clout. Ovitz is on the board of the Museum of Modern Art, is one of Pace Wildenstein's top clients and has a Brentwood home filled with Picassos, Dubuffets, Schnabels, and African artefacts. His brother-in-law is the sculptor Joel Shapiro whose work decorates the CAA Offices alongside a gigantic mural by Lichtenstein. His former partner Ron Meyer is on the board of LA's MoCA along with Ivan Reitman, a CAA client and director of the all-too-memorable film Meatballs. Ovitz' rival, David Geffen is the top client of Pace's New York rival, Larry Gagosian. Not only does Geffen count major Twomblys and De Koonings in his collection, he now owns Jack Warner's mansion. Where is Dali when we need him?
In his 1939 painting Shirley Temple, the Youngest, Most Sacred Monster of the Cinema in Her Time, Dali depicted America's little sweetheart as a hairy chested, blood-red sphinx whose cannibalistic gluttony has stripped to the bone everything in sight. Dali's unsparing rage against the mediocrity of the cute moppet seems light years away from the acquiescent, wannabe, showbiz fantasies of so many contemporary artists. Unfortunately, they seem more interested in climbing aboard the media train than in derailing it. The recent mass market flops of Salle and Longo's movies and Schnabel's music only exemplify the hopelessness of art world attempts to conform to current industry standards and to create mass market products on industry terms. What is needed instead is a little anger, a little arrogance, and a lot of thought about quality.
After his project for the 1939 New York World's Fair was blocked by corporate interference, Dali composed a manifesto which railed against compromise in the arts and the idea that art must be toned down: 'The public is infinitely superior to the rubbish that is fed to it daily... The misunderstanding has come about entirely through those "middlemen of culture" who, with their lofty airs and superior quackings, come between the creator and the public... ARTISTS AND POETS OF AMERICA!... THE TIME HAS COME TO REUNITE YOURSELVES WITHIN THE HISTORIC BOWELS OF YOUR PHILADELPHIA, TO RING ONCE MORE THE SYMBOLIC BELL OF YOUR IMAGINATIVE INDEPENDENCE, AND, HOLDING ALOFT IN ONE HAND FRANKLIN'S LIGHTNING ROD, AND IN THE OTHER LAUTREAMONT'S UMBRELLA, TO DEFY THE STORM OF OBSCURANTISM THAT IS THREATENING YOUR COUNTRY! LOOSE THE BLINDING LIGHTNING OF YOUR ANGER AND THE AVENGING THUNDER OF YOUR PARANOIAC INSPIRATION!' Avida Dollars, all is forgiven.