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'Velvet Buzzsaw' raises questions about the valorization of art

film review

"Velvet Buzzsaw," directed by Dan Gilroy, was released on Netflix Feb. 1.
"Velvet Buzzsaw," directed by Dan Gilroy, was released on Netflix Feb. 1.

How we attribute value to art has been a question since the origins of the art world. Those who determine what is valuable, an immense power that is often granted to critics, determine the kinds of art to be produced by artists. 

“Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” the opening line for Dan Gilroy’s newest film perfectly captures the satirical caricature of the art world through the eyes of a critic who destroys careers and artistic futures but feels "limited" in his own expression. Premiering at last month’s Sundance Film Festival and then picked up by Netflix, “Velvet Buzzsaw” presents a dark warning against greed in the art world, particularly in aesthetic valorization. For Gilroy’s movie, supernatural spirits found within the art itself give voice against those who profit from art with no connection to it. 

The film tells the story of a previously unknown and recently deceased artist, Vetril Dease, being uncovered by his neighbor and art consultant, Josephina (Zawe Ashton). Upon its discovery, Josephina’s boss Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) and other art collectors attempt to capitalize on this haunting series of paintings, buying off pieces for museums and personal investment. They do not care so much about the art as about the profit, arbitrarily granting values to this deceased artist’s paintings. Even eccentric art critic Morf Vanderwalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) stakes his own claim in Dease paintings by writing a novel about the artist and his mysterious past. He immediately begins to uncover the life of this artist, marked by his disturbing past filled with abuse and maltreatment. Quickly, the dark past of the artist seems to take over and destroy those who attempt to attribute value to it. In a supernatural twist, the art itself takes matters into its own hands, revolting against the greed and corruption in the world of art. 

As a thriller with a satirical side, the film provides an interesting intersection of genres. Through its haunting and violent scenes, “Velvet Buzzsaw” cautions against those who lose track of the true value of art for profit. Those who choose money are doomed to be harshly punished. 

Because the story is often told through the perspective of a critic, Gilroy is able to emphasize the disconnect between the artist and the viewer, particularly the viewer with a critical lens. To capitalize on the work of another is ultimately deemed a criminal offense by the art itself.

The most compelling aspect of this film is the power of the art as a character in the film. The art plays an active role in this film, a perspective rarely considered relevant. It is able to take control of its own fate and damn those who betray the artist’s true intentions. This leads the viewer to consider the art outside the art world, as an entity in itself rather than a piece granted value by the world around it. 

Critics’ responses to “Velvet Buzzsaw” have been varied, with most feeling as though Gilroy is making a claim against all commercial activity in relation to art or against art criticism as a whole. In reality, Gilroy seems to be presenting a fine line to the viewer, the line between an appreciation of art and the artist and its extreme commercialization. 

Where the film falls flat is in the extremity of its caricature of the art world. Gilroy seems to get lost in the satirical side of the film, weakening its persuasive power. His film misrepresents the art world, reducing it to its most extreme attributes and generalizing those who give value to art as simply heartless greedy masses. Even as a satire, some elements should hold an element of authenticity to present a valuable argument. To present the art world as it truly is, the other side should have been represented, the side that gives value to art out of passion rather than for monetary gain. 

Regardless, the director leaves the audience with a number of pressing questions about the role of money in art.  How should art be valued? Gilroy clearly presents an extreme in which the art itself rebels, but how do we find the middle ground to allow for both commercial activities without the degradation of the artist or their art? Does such a middle ground exist?


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