BY David A. Greene in Reviews | 07 JUN 97
Featured in
Issue 35

Kerri Scharlin

BY David A. Greene in Reviews | 07 JUN 97

In the past, I have written about the mutually ignorant fascinations that visual art and entertainment harbour for each other: art coveting the power of entertainment's mass appeal, and entertainment pining for the legitimacy of art's freedom to tell the truth. Both disciplines tend to ignore the fact that to possess one attribute is to exclude the other ­ usually to their own embarrassment, and always at the expense of a genuine and interesting give-and-take. This, however, is the last I'll mention of the subject. Because this exhibition is so perfect, so accomplished, so absolutely wrong, that the longed-for dialogue might just rise from its ashes.

The artist's project is pure dope: she hires practitioners from more popular creative professions ­ glossy-magazine writers, police sketch artists, fashion cartoonists ­ to aggrandise and reinvent her ordinary self, as a sort of mysterious art-star manqué. Astonishingly, they usually agree to the arrangement (sometimes even doing it for free), lured by the apparent status of participating in Art. The artist's revolutionary insight is that media outlets mediate images, and that this is a service that can, to an extent, be bought; such is the kind of empty-headed cleverness that sometimes passes for 'conceptual art'. But it's really just a crutch for not having any original ideas ­ or being afraid to fail with the ones you've got.

That said, infatuation is blind, intellectually speaking: legit critics have been sucked in too, finally getting the chance to write that celebrity profile. One starry-eyed hack even declared this practice something Warhol would approve of; but Warhol would never have paid someone to make him famous ­ or at least he never would have admitted it. It'd be cheating first of all, and second, it wouldn't last. (Those 15 minutes applied only to the little people, remember.) Even Andy ­ especially Andy ­ understood that there's a big difference between simply raising an issue and making an idea real. Knowing the difference can make a career; sometimes, it can change the world.

That deep pockets and naked ambition can, in the short run, make up for a lack of talent is no secret in the art world, just as it is known in the worlds of politics and business. In all three, however, as a matter of policy it is taboo to call attention to the fact that mediocrity floats. But there is one institution where that truism is equally entrenched ­ if not more so ­ yet where self-criticism is ingrained in the corporate structure: Hollywood. As evidence, just look to the devastating, in-joke ribbing of this year's Oscars ceremony ­ not held in an intimate Friar's Club closed to the press and public, but telecast to millions around the world. And nowhere in entertainment is this more prevalent than in television, where thumbing one's nose at the network bigwigs and their moronic sons-in-law is now a sitcom staple ­ allowed if only because scripts are written and produced in such a short time that bureaucratic supervision is never perfect.

Television is the focus of this exhibition: in one room of the gallery is a brace of expensive video projectors, showing 36 presumably desperate actresses auditioning for the part of the artist in a non-existent TV special. Play a rim-shot in your head and forget it. The real story is in the anteroom: six blown-up storyboards and accompanying television scripts, all commissioned from Hollywood professionals. (So what if most TV shows don't use storyboards? This is Conceptual Art!) Some of the scripts describe a semi-fictionalised account of the artist's trip to LA; others are brief vignettes from her love and work lives. About ten pages long, each script is written in the style of the show for which the writers work ('The Simpsons', 'Caroline in the City', 'Law and Order'); the storyboards follow the same format, and are frequently hilarious ­ especially those from animated shows. In one, the artist and her entourage are Simpsonised; in another, she is a strangely alluring Butt-Head to her boyfriend's Beavis.

As embellished by storytelling experts, all these scripts are far more fun than any real-world art-gossip. Sometimes the hilarity comes from unexpected places ­ as in the 'One Life to Live' version, which opens onto what is apparently the last day of art school: newly minted young professionals gathering up their books and exchanging business cards. The most probative insights come from equally unlikely sources ­ like 'Art Sucks' by Kristofor Brown, a writer for MTV's 'Beavis and Butt-Head'. When the artist-as-Butt-Head pitches her dopey project to a magazine editor ('Uhh... [it's] about how media and stuff shapes the self...'), he replies with a non sequitur about cats and mirrors; when she asks what the hell that means, he replies, 'Listen. You stick to your art. I'll stick to mine'. Implying, of course, another axiom from the world of entertainment: that there's only one show business.

When these Hollywood writers are matched with an art project that embodies their own job frustrations ­ and for some, maintains the same romantic misconceptions about what an artist does ­ beautiful music results. By default or design, their scripts abandon the ho-hum premise of the artwork for which they were solicited, and bubble up into an entertaining critique of it. And as we watch the writers begin to understand what art does, we, in turn, begin to understand what entertainment does. That this effect is produced without anyone breaking character, so to speak, keeps the exercise from succumbing to the jarring pretensions that usually accompany art-about-entertainment, and entertainment-about-art.

But, as in Hollywood, the writers still get screwed in the end. When all is said and done, the producer ­ that dull deal-maker who signs the cheques ­ gets all the credit.