But Is It Art?


Art School Confidential has two not entirely unserious points to make: (a) most art sucks and (b) this is so because the controlling institutions are eminently corruptible. No surprise, then, that the film bombed at Sundance, where many in the audience must have had a hard time not taking personally its bilious attack on the strivers, poseurs, whores, and sellouts that hog the oxygen in any artistic ecosystem. Directed by Terry Zwigoff from a script by his Ghost World collaborator, comic artist Daniel Clowes, this bitter meditation on art and commerce is a corrective to the feel-good cynicism of last year’s Sundance smash Hustle & Flow, with its own pimptastic catchphrase to boot. In a hilarious fit of drunken career counseling, Jim Broadbent’s washed-up painter poses the big question to Max Minghella’s ambitious student: “Are you a ‘great artist’ when it comes to fellatio?” Clowes and Zwigoff spoke to the Voice the day after their movie’s premiere.

Have people here been reading the film as a Sundance allegory?

Daniel Clowes: Not as much as I’d have thought. I got the sense the audience wanted it to be that. And then it got too dark.

Is it a little disingenuous for successful artists to be taking a critical view of the art establishment?

Terry Zwigoff: You’re saying we’re successful artists?

Clowes: I don’t consider myself successful, certainly not within that art establishment. But my intent was never to say, “Artists are all fools and I don’t like art.” I love art, I live for art, but the things that make it difficult I’m not in love with. It’s about what success and lack of success does to you. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’m never affected by that.” But it’s impossible not to be.

Zwigoff: People tend to see a misanthropic viewpoint behind anything that’s critical or discerning. People are just not critical enough in this culture.

At what stage in your careers did you realize the importance of, as the Jim Broad bent character puts it, “cocksucking”?

Clowes: I think it’s just a constant process, a cycle of becoming Jim Broadbent and then all of a sudden you’re Marvin Bushmiller [the school’s smug celebrity alumnus].

Zwigoff: I relate to Jim Broadbent’s character more myself.

Clowes: He’s a very comforting character, our talisman of failure. Failure in some ways is more empowering than success.

The movie proposes that the key to success is knowing how to talk about your art—more so than the art itself. How good are you at the salesmanship?

Clowes: We had a class where we had to get up and defend our work and the teacher told me, “You are truly the worst speaker I’ve ever seen.”

Zwigoff: You can see how articulate I am. It’s tough for me.

Do you think your portrayal of conceptual art is fair?

Clowes: I don’t want to come off like one of those Republicans picking on the NEA, like, “Oh this guy pissed on a crucifix and called it art.” That’s not what this is about. But when I was in art school, people literally were bringing in the tampon in the teacup.

Zwigoff: I’ve seen some great conceptual art.

Clowes: I’ve seen every kind of art that I like, but it’s the idea of following a school— “I do the triangle paintings.” That’s when the dog is eating its own tail.

Looking back now, how useful was art school?

Clowes: In terms of learning to do comics, almost not at all. But in terms of meeting people who became friends for life it was essential. People read my comics and say, “I guess you’re saying I shouldn’t go to art school.” And I always say they should. It’s where the weirdos of the world meet.

Terry, you didn’t go to art school?

Zwigoff: No, I never had the benefit. I have a B.A. in psychology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I spent four years smoking pot and avoiding classes.

And Daniel, have you dabbled much in teaching?

Clowes:One-off classes. Every three or four years I forget it’s something I should never do. I’m very nervous around young people. I know how mean I was then. I know they’re making jokes about my lack of hair.