by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & Art School confidential & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & J & lt;/span & erome (Max Minghella) wants, with the utmost earnestness, to be "the greatest artist of the 21st century." Dude says it with a straight face -- even, at one point, with a tear in his eye. So we root for him. Yes, his stuff seems good. Classically good, like a mixture of all the world's favorite styles, neoclassical with some Impressionistic elements and perhaps a bit of Flemish voyeurism to sex it up. His classmates, on the other hand, are dyed in the wool art school nut jobs. They talk way more than they work. And what they talk about is utterly pretentious: subverting paradigms, caring less about product than process and other such wankery. So when, inevitably, Max's work is spurned by his classmates and teachers in favor of Crayola scribblings and spit-wad sculptures, we naturally think we know where writer Daniel Clowes is going: Art school doesn't recognize real talent. That'd be it, if Clowes weren't interested in a little paradigm subversion himself.
See, Jerome meets a girl (a classically pretty one, even down to the Rubenesque hips). Before we know it, he's all screwed up over this chick, his work becomes scattershot, he listens to every piece of bad advice his crappy professors and moron peers give him, he doubts himself and, unforgivably, he steals other artists' works, which leaves us wondering: Was he ever any good in the first place? It's funny, that moment when you realize that you've reflexively backed the underdog in the popularity contest, but that everyone else has as well, so you've really backed the favorite. It's then you realize Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff have slowly bent the whole audience into backing Jerome, this kid whom we now realize probably isn't any good. What does that say about us, that we'd be so easily manipulated? What does that say about art?
If art is primarily a visceral, emotional experience and if, as we've seen countless times (Lord of the Flies, War in Iraq), emotional reactions are subject to herd mentality, then how much of what's deemed good is what's most effectively hyped? Clowes would respond, "All of it, the whole damn lot" -- except his stuff, that is, which you can purchase at reasonable rates from any of a number of fine independent comics dealers. Art School Confidential, then, isn't just a portrait of hypocrisy and elitism; the hypocrisy and elitism are sunk deep within the film's structure, mingling with and muddying the whole wretchedly wonderful mess. It's so contrarian hypocritical that it's got to be the most realistic depiction of art culture I've seen in a long time. What we can't tell is whether Clowes and Zwigoff realize their hypocrisy, which adds to the enjoyment.
Art School Confidential isn't a great film; in some ways, it's not even a good film. There isn't really a plot (besides the obvious boy-meets-girl thing, which is so fundamental to all film that you can't really call it a plot element anymore). It's more like a series of vignettes focused on a procession of late-'90s college characters. When, in the last act, a murder mystery kind of just pops up, it feels strange and tacked on. Shouldn't our protagonist just grow until he finds himself? Maybe. Probably... Yeah, definitely. But then ... perhaps that's just what the dominant paradigm wants us to think.
Ultimately, Art School Confidential is admirable for challenging us to think about aesthetics, the cult of fame, and the problem of intellectualizing art. In that sense, the problems with the film mirror the problems with our culture, and pulling that off is a very deft maneuver indeed.