Velvet Buzzsaw: art is murder, and critics deserve brutal justice

Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw is a fun horror flick based on a nearly universally accepted belief about art: that “real art” is done for the passion, not the money. In this particular version, a dead artist’s paintings come to live and brutally murder his critiques.

More than that, Jake Gyllenhaal as a snobby art critique, goes through a character arch of realizing what a shitty person he is, because of how carelessly he spread negative reviews that destroy careers.

As such it’s kind of an artist’s wet dream: a riotous slaughter house through creative gatekeepers and critics – one rejected artist’s torture-porn through a jaded industry that exploits (or worse ignores) the true creative genius.

In an industry where critical feedback can now literally stop a book from being published, and Good Reads users have taken book reviews to performance art by being professionally outraged, not to mention the millions of angry authors who are pissed off because someone accurately pointing out that there book was no good, there are heated feelings – and even if you’re not actually an artist or author, you might buy in to Velvet Buzzsaw’s main premise – that ART and BUSINESS are diametrically opposed.

Plot: We start by meeting characters in the art industry, making deals, trading favors, cheating on their partners with each other. An indignant bi-sexual art critique (Morf) believes he’s pure and above the money. His new girlfriend (who was dating an artist) discovers a dead body and a cache of dark, thrilling paintings.

With their industry connections, they launch a career for the dead artist (Dease) even though he WANTED all his paintings burned.

 

When the art is revealed, we get a litany of inane art statements:
“It cuts through the bullshit and gives form to true emotion.”

“What does it say?”
“What do you feel?”

 

Jake’s new girlfriend asks him to post a negative review of her ex; he does, which begins his inevitable fall from Purity into Corruption (even though he wants to be all about the Art, he gets lured to using his position for Power and Money.)

At Dease’s reveal, a few other art veterans are angry about his negative review of his girlfriend’s ex. He says,

“A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity.”

They’re offended, and ask:

“Was that a joke? Ricky got drunk and crashed his car last night, he’s a in a coma.”

The lesson: critics have a responsibility to care about what their reviews do to the artists, and should at the very least be sympathetic to their emotional response.

 

Meanwhile, the one REAL artist (John Malkovich) is burnt out; he’s been painting copies of himself and focused on reprints and merchandise. He hasn’t painted in over a year, even though an eager new agent is ready to sell everything he paints.

A friend gives him a quote from another artist:

“Dependency murders creativity; creativity plays with the unknown. No strategies exist that can enclose the endless realm of the new. Only trust in yourself can carry you past your fears and the already known.”

This is a decent quote about art – mastery is important, but fear is necessary: art is the creative risk, the making of something new; without risk and fear, it’s not art. But the more you have to lose, the greater the uncertainty.

She tells him, “forget about the art world, get away from here, take a break… use my beach house, stay there until you do something for nobody but yourself.”

(Which is great advice, if only we all had beachhouses we could use. By the way, if you want your own creative break, make sure you sign up for my castle writing retreat.)

Meanwhile, however, the art starts killing people.

First, the driver of a truck who is going to hide half the artist’s work to artificially inflate demand (bursts into flames, then attacked by monkeys).

Another (rival) gallery owner who is planning to sabotage the art’s value with an expose on the artist’s true level of crazy (he’s not just tormented; he’s probably a murder who paints his own blood into his work).

Then an ex-gallery work who is now representing a private owner; she made a deal to get some of Dease’s work and is now leveraging her pieces to help sell other work she owns.

Interestingly, they aren’t all killed by DEASE’s art, but often ANY art – so this could just be a standard haunting. At this point, everyone is freaked out. Dease’s show is a huge hit.

In one of the best lines of the film, when Jake goes for comfort at his girlfriend’s apartment and finds him sleeping with an upcoming artist, he says:

“The admiration I had for your work has completely evaporated.”

Then to her:

“Say we don’t share something real.”
“I was never particularly obsessed.”

 

Jake Gyllenhaal’s character goes to review a sound exhibition, but gets locked inside and hears all the negative words of art critiques, including his own; making him realize what terrible people art critiques are.

 

Jake’s life is shattering – he goes to warn the last remaining gallery maven.

“Stop selling Dease! Get rid of it, box it all, all of it away. that’s what I’m doing.”

She responds,

“All art is dangerous.”

 

This is a fun line; symbolically, we could interpret this adventure to mean, ART makes you see things; changes perspective, makes you scared (unknown, unmoored, lost, confused). The gallery owners and having (maybe for the first time) an authentic experience of True Art.

Jake’s character, Mosh, is the main protagonist for this shift in understanding. He muses:

“It has been revealed to me that there is some sort of larger power, some entity invested in our endeavor.”

“Invested how?”
“In violation of inviolate rules.”

But then he learns, it’s already too late for him. His ex-boyfriend had a deal with this gallery owner; she got advanced word of his reviews, so she could do some insider trading and make a profit. He was complicit.

His new girlfriend, meanwhile, is off with her new young artist boyfriend, but he makes the MORAL choice and designs to join a small local coop and stay in the community.

She says

“Jesus what’s the point of art if nobody sees it?”

She dies he doesn’t: if this isn’t just an angry ghost, if there are “inviolate rules” of some kind, we may infer that “real” artists do it for the passion, and don’t even want people to see it, they do it for themselves. They’re spiritually wise. The “dealers” only see the value and profit; they’re infantile vultures.

The art ghost hacks her iphone, and she sees a vision of the ugly graffiti she was ignoring a second ago, suddenly in a nice white gallery. Now, she’s interested, and steps inside, only to be trapped there forever.

One curator (the main antagonist) ALMOST gets away, but her own tattoo – from when she was in a rock band – kills her. Perhaps because she “sold out” her original passion, so her own creative art or music kills her (possible lesson: unless you aren’t truly inflamed with passion for your creative work, you’re already dead.

Deis’s art ends up on the street, selling for $5, and we get the sense that this is how he would have wanted it. To be appreciated quietly and genuinely by a few, without profiting from it.

 

Conclusion: The best art SHOULD be made free. Real artists don’t make money. Real artists want to be appreciated by normal people, and that’s enough, even if they don’t make any money.

Does that resonate with you?

How about this one: often I tell people, if you have no platform or audience, you need to give your art away for free until people start noticing it (they can’t want what they don’t know exists). After you have a platform and audience, you can charge.

SOME artists and authors, however, routinely challenge me on this.

“I spent all that time and effort, not to mention expense, and you’re telling me I need to give it away? That just teaches people not to pay for my work! It devalues art and literature! You should never do creative work for free or accept exposure as payment.”

Maybe that resonates with you, too.

But as you can see, they’re diametrically opposed: they’re opposite, contradictory definitions of what art is for, and what art is worth.

All I would caution you against, is making business decisions from an ideological standpoint, based on your opinions or beliefs. Don’t decide what you think will or won’t work, for reasons. Try them both, do what works.

What I can tell you, is I’ve tried everything, and I speak from experience. You can do everything your way and learn through slow, frustrating failure, or you can pivot faster and try things out even if they seem strange or uncomfortable at first.

My definition of art is kind of like Bentham’s law

“it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”

In other words, I want my creative work to matter, on a deeply personal level, while also improving their life or experience. And, instead of limiting that impact to only a few people, I aim to serve by offering my work to as many people as possible.

BUT I recognize that, if I truly want my art to be seen, then I need to invest and platform growth and the ability to put my art in front of people; and for that to happen, and also so that I can spend my time focused on my art, instead of doing my art part-time as a hobby around my “real job” – then I need to figure out a way to earn a living; I know my art has worth because I provide value and I understand my audience with market research, but I can only grow if my work is profitable – which means I spend less making and promoting it than I actually earn from it.

It’s easy to begrudge gallery owners or successful artists or publishers or literary agents who you think have “sold out” and “only care about profits.” But they don’t owe you anything! If you had work that provided obvious value to a specific audience, if there was money to be made, they would LOVE to represent you!

But it’s not their responsibility to look for the value of your work and figure out how to “sell it” to somebody, somewhere. Chances are, it’s already too late for that, if you didn’t create something with actual appeal (that people will enjoy on their own, without needing someone to convince them that their own experiences of the work don’t matter).

The truth is, if you’re writing a book, most people will quit after the first few pages because it doesn’t interest them. If you’re creating art, most people will shrug and walk by. You need to be remarkable from the first point of contact. You need to pre-suade them that you are good and your art or writing is worth consideration. They have to expect or want to enjoy it before they get to it..

And this CAN be done with price anchoring (the more people pay, the more attention and time they’ll spend appreciating the work). However, price anchoring only works if people already want the thing – art isn’t something people buy because they need it, so there’s no average price; price depends on how much they want it (unless, you’re creating copies or prints: including books – people won’t pay more than average for books because they are a commodity and buy many).

Focus on your platform (email list, web traffic, network); then put products in front of the right people with intrinsic and obvious benefits, reviews and social proof, and excellent positioning (sales copy) so they know it’s for them and they’re going to love it, because it has all the things they already love.

Then do that again and again.

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book editor turned book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors write and publish bestselling books. FREE GUIDE: Sell your work without selling out.