Interpreting Franco after the financial crisis by E C Feiss27th February, 2011
James Franco’s actual artwork is beside the point, this is clear. Moving forward, what can James Franco’s presence in the art world tell us about the current cultural moment? Franco offers a literal cross over between art and popular culture, a moment Warhol predicted exactly and would probably be immensely enjoying. In our time, the James Deans are not solely the subject; they also get to make the art.
Reviews of Franco’s two solo exhibitions continually succumb to the same tone and structure. First, the critic addresses the expectations of the art world and its public, beginning with a disclaimer about how the reader likely assumes they would be panning the show but in fact, they are not. The reviews then attempt to legitimize Franco’s work through a who’s who of attendees of the opening, or a listing of artists Franco is or is planning to collaborate with, or which curators, dealers and gallerists are interested in him. Even while the legitimacy of his art is defended, any in depth discussion of the actual work is missing from every review to date.
See Art in America
And also Artforum
And finally, the New York Times, for a few examples.
Roberta Smith for example, considered Franco’s art briefly, ultimately coming to vague conclusions, referring to it as “a confusing mix of the clueless and the halfway promising”. Why, exactly, is Franco’s work half-way promising? It’s not that I’m an immediate Franco skeptic, it’s that Smith gives no believable reasons grounded in the actual work. It’s not clear how Franco’s work is more or less promising than any other art student’s. Smith’s review ultimately set the tone for much of Franco’s critical reception to follow, saying very little about the art, other than it is derivative – but not completely terrible. Smith is uncharacteristically forgiving, concluding that Franco is on his way to making better work, when he matures as an artist. I’m not sure when, at any other point in recent memory, an artist was forgiven so easily and it is because Franco is important for other reasons. Critics, whether consciously or otherwise, want to keep him around.
Via Peres Projects
The critical interpretation of Franco clearly points to the his status as a cultural symbol and important indicator of art’s relationship to popular society as the reason for collective fascination, rather than anything to do with artistic merit, not that this makes him any less fascinating. Franco’s celebrity and cross over status is equally interesting to a discussion of an artist and his work, but it must be clear that his actual artwork has not and will not be the centerpiece of the conversation-his work is just good enough to pass as art as we watch the creative elites collide. Yes, he plays with his own celebrity-but the idea of celebrity in art is far from new. It is only compelling because of who James Franco is, what he maintains about himself and his work simply sound like he took some good critical theory classes while at UCLA. For example,
In a normal commercial narrative film, I’m playing a character in order to support the imaginary world of that film. I’m acting in such a way that people will believe in that world, right? And if I act in a way that draws attention to the fact that I am a performer in a commercial film, usually people will consider that bad acting. But if I do it in this context, I can act in all sorts of ways. I can act badly, I can act silly, I can draw attention to the fact that it’s all a performance.
Franco further disorients critics with his gestures of performance art-is he actually acting on General Hospital or is it performance art? Which, like his artwork, is a secondary issue which has been mangled in the press into an actual topic for serious consideration. Conveniently, there has been no mention of Andy Kaufman. Instead of a conversation about the art, Franco in the art world and the mania generated around him offer two fundamental questions. Who is allowed to be an artist in America today? And, in the comedown of the global recession, what does it mean that Franco is being embraced at this moment?
Artfourm’s diary blog, a generally addictive wet kisses-all-around kind of affair, covered Franco’s opening at Peres Projects in Berlin. The headlining image is of Franco, Klaus Biesenbach and dealer Javier Peres, locked in a deliriously excited embrace. Franco’s boy’s club and homosocial mode of operati point to a desperation on the side of the art world-but whether it’s sexual or economic desperation is difficult to conclude. In a conservative climate for the arts, Franco is the ideal artist, his name recognition offers security. He’s the more famous version of Nate Lowman; both are easy Pollock figures. We know he has never financially suffered and he offers the image of a cool, comfortable guy as a welcome opposition to the starving (or angry) artist. The oppressively ecstatic reactions of artists like Kalup Linzy (who Franco reports he is making “motowny” music with) to Franco and his artistic pursuits, verge on a desperation that is mildly sexual, even though Franco is clearly not queer. The art world is prostituting itself for Franco because he represents an industry that is financially secure.
In a recent interview with Art in America, Glenn Ligon discusses a personal turning point: I became an artist when I received a grant from the NEA in 1989. NEA grants of course, are no longer given to individuals. Franco’s presence is inevitable and the direct product of economic tightening on the arts.