Death is Art

By Tim Winterstein


Velvet Buzzsaw (streaming on Netflix) is the latest example of how Netflix is changing the film industry. It used to be (and still is, for the most part) that people like me had to wait months to see a film that people at major film festivals were talking about. But Sundance just finished and already Velvet Buzzsaw is streaming. That Netflix has the capital to get actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, and John Malkovich shows how things have shifted away from a few major studios.

Dan Gilroy (writer/director) goes back to Gyllenhaal and Russo, who appeared together in Nightcrawler. And while the subject (art instead of journalism) is different, the territory feels familiar: where is the line between authentic art (or journalism) and using either for an exploitative purpose? Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler is someone who is so eager to get the journalistic scoop that he blurs the line between reporting news (particularly the tragic or violent kind) and creating or causing such events. In some ways, that character trait is transferred in Velvet Buzzsaw to Josephina (Zawe Ashton). She gets pushed to the back by Rhodora Haze (Russo), and that causes her to engage in unethical behavior as she “discovers” a new and unknown artistic genius.

But the cutthroat nature of the art industry is only the tip of the iceberg. The fact that it’s an industry is at the heart of the story, which satirizes and caricatures those who are always trying to discover the next big thing. Gilroy’s artists and gallery owners and agents are as pretentious as they come. Gyllenhaal’s character, aptly named “Morf” (I actually expected it to be spelled “Morph”), tells Josephina that his body is the result of “Pilates and Peloton.” (All I can think of is this Twitter thread.) My other favorite line is when John Dondon comes to Piers’ (Malkovich) studio and sees three trash bags in the middle of the floor and says, “Remarkable.” Piers dryly responds, “That’s not art,” and points to a canvas.

This insatiable desire for whatever is unusual, unknown, or boundary pushing is what propels the narrative into horror—though rarely gore—because of what Josephina discovers in a dead man’s apartment. His art is what everyone has been looking for, but that search is actually what kills them (and the art). And because Piers is the only one who is tired of the whole thing (MAJOR SPOILER; STOP READING NOW IF YOU INTEND TO SEE THIS), he is, not coincidentally, the only one who survives to the end, in a sort of rebirth into creative childhood. And Dease, the artist who makes these pieces and imbues them with blood (His abusive father’s? His? Someone else’s?), is the most jealous god. Though Morf and Rhodora come closest of all the characters to repentance—more like attrition than contrition—such repentance cannot save them.

Though VB deals with the art world, it contains a major theme that could be extended to nearly any creative work. The line between authentic creation and exploitation is as thin as the emperor’s new clothes. Because that’s what it comes down to: the critics, agents, and gallery owners are so desperate to discover anything that will put them on the art world map that they will, as secular theologians of glory, call evil good and good evil. They see trash and call it art, simply because it’s something new; and they see art and call it trash (as Morf does, at Josephina’s request), because of a personal vendetta or to elevate themselves as arbiters of what may pass for art.

The lesson that should not be drawn from this is that all modern art is trash, just as all modern journalism (after Nightcrawler) is exploitative ambulance chasing (or creating the conditions for calling the ambulance, as the case may be) or “fake news”—which doesn’t, incidentally, seem to elevate “true news.” For many people, it only denigrates and casts suspicion on all news.

It seems to me that whatever the medium, the difficult thing is not so much being unable to recognize powerful art as it is not to be fooled by self-styled taste-makers. That’s the power of the emperor’s new clothes fable: no one wants to be considered uncultured or tasteless; no one wants to be the one who doesn’t “get it.” I feel it when I see movies that “everyone” says are good. (I just cannot appreciate the narrative of First Reformed, for example.)

This is related to the question of how subjective is the appreciation of any art form. Is it only something for experts? If I can’t explain to a layperson (here with regard to any kind of expertise, not in the sense of non-pastors) the relative superiority of one piece over another, is it really superior? And even if the layperson can understand and appreciate what I’m explaining, that is not the same as enjoying the superior piece. There’s a reason that classical music is “classic”; it’s far superior to ephemeral pop music. But that doesn’t—at least in our ephemeral culture—translate to wide enjoyment by the “populus.” (And pop music isn’t only popular, but it often disappears as quickly as a bubble: with a nearly inaudible “pop.”)

All that is related but not identical to the consumer/creativity line. The “industry” of a given art form may or may not be related to the creativity of a piece within that art form. I happen to think there is room for both popular enjoyment of something (like a movie) as well as mastery of the craft (filmmaking), which may not be popular (in both senses of the term). Bad things often sell millions of units. Good things often don’t sell.

I wonder, then, how those ideas might relate to something like preaching. One should not be “creative” with the Word of God (the proclamation of that Word being the goal of preaching) in the sense that preachers should come up with some novel interpretation in order for them to be viewed as “creative.” But isn’t there a sense in which preachers ought to be masters of their craft (to the best of their abilities)? They are in the business of using words just as much as authors or poets. They ought to use words well.

Now whether or not preachers are good craftsmen has little to no bearing on whether the Word of God is actually preached. Those who use words well can often preach the Word of God badly or not at all. At the same time, those who are the simplest and most basic practitioners of preaching can proclaim the Word of God truly and significantly, because it is the Word (and not the preacher) who gives preaching its true power.

But perhaps the fact that the Scriptures give us examples of many different kinds of literature—some simple and common; others beautiful and profound—shows that, humanly speaking, there is room for rhetorical and poetic language, as long as the beauty of the language remains the means, and not the end, of the preaching.

This may seem to have gone far afield from Velvet Buzzsaw, but I think the principle applies: there are taste-makers in preaching and theology just as much as in any other artistic vocation. And the fact that certain preachers or preaching sells is not the same as that preaching being good, either theologically or artistically. I suspect there are preachers, just as much as artists, who feel constrained from doing good work by consumeristic religion and by the consumers themselves, who will pay a lot for trash just because a lot of people say it’s good.

Maybe we all, like Piers, need a break once in a while at a beach-side cabin in order to rediscover what it means to create good theological and pastoral work, lest we die and our hearers perish with us.