- Projected Art History: Biopics, Celebrity Culture, and the Popularizing of American Art by Doris Berger
Doris Berger’s well-researched book, published originally in German (2009), argues that popular art history is affected by, if not determined by, biopics in [End Page 799] which myths persist through historical dislocations and narratives intended to reach a mass public. She focuses on two films, Pollock (Director Ed Harris, 2000) and Basquiat (Director Julian Schnabel, 1996). While this is not news to scholars of biopics, what Berger brings to this subject is an in-depth examination, including interviews with directors and actors. She contrasts historical information and its translations into film, to bring into sharper focus the relationship between high and low culture, as she calls them. She carefully analyzes many stills from these two films, a very helpful approach to film studies, too often hampered by the lack of images, which this book has in profusion. As she indicates, the production of these films merits as much attention as the analysis of the films’ imagery, textual sources, and historical contexts. Her focus on the production process, epitomized in her interview with Pollock director and star Ed Harris, is one of Berger’s contributions.
Berger tries to contextualize these films within a number of overlapping spheres: celebrity culture, national identities, gender, race, star legends, and reception. But some contexts are oversimplified and reductive. The label “Hollywood” is used repeatedly, a term that, in light of the last twenty to thirty years of directors who crossed genre borders, is little more than a reductive tag. Given the very complex nature of artist biopics, to incorporate high culture into popular film merits not a dichotomy or tag, but the investigation that Berger suggests, but such reductive labels, often repeated throughout the book rather than interrogated, do not do her investigation justice.
Similarly, it is questionable to call film “low” culture, an outmoded Theodore Adorno-influenced view; artists’ biopics were made by some of the most renowned directors—Alexander Korda, Vincent Minnelli, John Huston, Derek Jarman, and Carol Reed, to name a few. Their biopics were not B movies. Most directors—Minnelli, Huston, Jarman, Harris, and Schnabel (a prominent artist himself)—identified with their subjects. Huston studied painting in Paris, and Minnelli’s innovative color was a response to Van Gogh’s. These movies, furthermore, do not share a single myth. Artist biopics until about the 60s promoted the myth of the suffering artist for reasons that Berger does not explore—an economic exchange between timely, abject artist and timeless, iconic, sanctified artwork, or a social uneasiness with non-conformity. She makes a point about which artists get a biopic and who does not. Many radical artists (e.g., Manet, Degas, Duchamp) lived lives deemed too unmythic, controlled, bourgeois, and undramatic to warrant a biopic.
Both Pollock and Basquiat address art world politics and power among dealers, critics, and artists, a relatively new content in artist biopics. Berger nicely contrasts the historical critic and dealer with their transformations in these films for narrative purposes. She shows how art works are created in films that are not permitted to use the real works, and the departures from the [End Page 800] original works made for greater legibility or narrative support. She describes directors’ conflicts between staging and incorporating authenticity, however differently that word may signify to directors, scholars, and spectators.
The context of celebrity culture, providing much scholarship recently, remains problematic in Berger’s analysis. What is the critical mass of popularity and recognition for a celebrity status? On a mass scale, despite art world efforts to promote its vision of culture and its artists du jour, modern art still reaches a small audience compared to film, TV, and popular music. As Berger notes, the fame of the actors creates an audience for these films, but it’s worth noting that many of the actors are not prominent celebrities; for example, Marcia Gay Harden won an academy award for her role as Lee...