Ed Driscoll

The Painted Word: The Motion Picture

In the mid-1970s, liberals were outraged over Tom Wolfe’s book, The Painted Word for deflating the pretensions of one of the left’s then-most sacred institutions: modern art. Traditional painting and sculpture were based on two millenia of aesthetic assumptions, meaning that anyone could instantly understand the art they were looking at. Modern art eventually jettisoned traditional aesthetics to turn itself into a sort of insular game where the theory behind the art was far more important than the actual work of art itself. (Hence the title of Wolfe’s book.)

Or as Wolfe himself wrote in The Painted Word:

And there, at last, it was!  No more realism, no more representational objects, no more lines, colors forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes, no more evocations, no more frames, walls, galleries, museums, no more gnawing at the tortured face of the god Flatness, no more audience required, just a “receiver” that may or may not be there at all, no more ego projected, just “the artist”, in the third person, who may be anyone or no one at all, not even existence, for that got lost in the subjunctive mode–and in the moment of absolutely dispassionate abdication, of insouciant withering away, Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher until, with one last erg of freedom, one last dendritic synapse, it disappeared up its own fundamental aperature…and came out the other side as Art Theory!…Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision, flat, flatter, Flattest, a vision invisible, even ineffable, as ineffable as the Angels and the Universal Souls.

In the Washington Times, Sonny Bunch reviews (Untitled), which sounds like the indy motion picture equivalent of Wolfe’s book — and only 35 years later!

“(Untitled)” isn’t a conservative film in any narrowly doctrinaire sense of the word. It isn’t a Randian broadside against “the looters” trying to implement socialized medicine. It isn’t a rousing war epic in the vein of “300” or “The Longest Day.” It isn’t a terrible parody film that takes cheap shots against easy targets such as Michael Moore.

Instead, “(Untitled)” goes after postmodernism — specifically, postmodern art.

Brothers Adrian and Josh Jacobs (Adam Goldberg and Eion Bailey, respectively) are artists of different temperaments. Adrian’s a sound artist whose musical arrangements include bucket-kicking and vinyl-squeaking; Josh is more successful, a painter whose compositions are less challenging than his brother’s cacophonous noise but far more popular.

Josh’s popularity with corporate types doesn’t win him what he desires, however: a showing in the avant-garde art gallery owned by Madeleine Gray (Marley Shelton). Madeleine has been content to sell his art — it keeps her afloat financially, in fact — but she refuses to show his work because it will diminish her credibility with the artiste set.

Instead, she shows art that can only be described as hideous. One exhibited artist is Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones), whose work resembles a taxidermist’s office by way of Derrida: Animals are stuffed and put into odd positions and splashed with makeup as a “comment” on society.

Another show consists of little more than items from a home placed onto a wall. A thumb tack (“Pushpin Stuck Into Wall”), for example, or a flickering lightbulb. In the world of New York’s hipster pomo set, this is what passes for art.

As Josh becomes more and more frustrated by Madeleine’s sensibilities, he finally blows his stack, yelling out, “When did beauty become so… ugly?”

“(Untitled)” is by no means a defense of banality in art, and Josh’s art is nothing if not banal — his painted canvases of soothing colors dotted with the occasional sphere line the hallways of corporate meeting rooms and hospitals. Instead, “(Untitled)” searches for the midpoint between banality and absurdity, doing so in a way that is likely to please lovers of both modern and classical art.

Again, this isn’t a fire-breathing conservative tract. It’s far more subtle than that. But it is a celebration of art and, in large part, a rejection of the turn the artistic avant-garde has taken over the last few decades.

It’s a relatively brave rejection at that: Those who argue that Hollywood is uniformly too timid to attack its own sacred cows would do well to recognize it. We shall see if they do.

Well, count me in — Bunch certainly makes it sound like a picture well worth checking out, unlike most of the post-1960s art at MOMA.