A Documentary That Gets How Tricky It Is to Understand Art

by The Technical Blogs


Have you ever stood in an art gallery, contemplating a vacuum, wondering if it’s art or if the maintenance staff just forgot to put it away? I love this feeling. To me, art is supposed to leave us re-evaluating everything we think we know about the world. But it does underline how knotty and capricious judging art can be — a matter also taken up by “Art Talent Show.”

Directed by Tomas Bojar and Adela Komrzy, “Art Talent Show” (opening this week in theaters) follows hopeful applicants to Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts, the oldest art college in the Czech Republic. When the film was on the festival circuit, it garnered comparisons to the movies of Frederick Wiseman: patient, witty observational portraits of institutions that coax audiences to draw conclusions about their ultimate theses. In this case, the subjects are the young artists in the process of grueling entrance exams. That includes being grilled by faculty who sometimes seem bent on messing with them just a little, whether it’s prodding a student into saying smoking might be good for the environment because it kills humans, or challenging their views of the art market.

The teachers are hardly rigid traditionalists, but they are of a different generation from the students. That means conversations about gender and sexuality, as well as commodification and what truly counts as provocative, are all part of the film. But the movie smartly situates the whole process inside the larger institution, with the receptionist in the lobby providing a riotous counterbalance to all the artiness therein.

“Art Talent Show” is itself provocative but also hilarious, both a sendup and a tribute to the complexity of contemporary art. It reminded me of another favorite documentary: Claire Simon’s “The Competition” (2016, streaming on Metrograph at Home), which follows would-be filmmakers hoping to be admitted to the prestigious Parisian school La Fémis. They also face panels of faculty grilling them about their views and aspirations, and the results are equally revealing.

Admittedly, both of these films made me very happy to have finished school long ago. But what I loved most was how they spotlight complex attitudes about the relationship between identity, craft and art, even in highly progressive contexts — and how fun they are to watch while they do it.


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