The art world won’t necessarily seem less strange after viewing Frank van den Engel’s documentary.
To someone looking in on the outside, the art world is very strange place. There’s glamour and hype and huge amounts of money changing hands over works that don’t seem all that special and may leave you wondering if you’ve walked onto the set of a real-life version of Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the emperor and his new suit of clothes. The art world won’t necessarily seem less strange after viewing Frank van den Engel’s documentary The Next Big Thing, but at least you won’t feel like the only person who has doubts about what is really going on in there.
The slightly mischievous tone of The Next Big Thing is established immediately, with a squigglevision animated credit sequence featuring gloved hands setting up the credits as if they were hanging an art show. The film proper opens with a close-up of a Rolls Royce hood ornament (“Spirit of Ectasy,” designed by the sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes), with a sign for Art Basel, the international art fair, in the background, followed by shots of some very glam people attending the show. And there you have the premise of this film, in a nutshell—the commercial interests and pretensions of the rich and famous have taken over the art world. In other words, it used to be about the art, man but not any more.
So help me, one of the many interviewees featured in this documentary, collector Michael Hort, actually says “it’s not about art any more…” and then goes on to clarify that “…it’s about the aura and the value.” In truth, I don’t disagree with him, except for the implied time period—when was the art world not at least partly about aura and value or, to put it another way, prestige and money? Maybe there has been a change in degree, as global wealth has become more concentrated, and the players may come from more countries than they used to (both points made by another interviewee, Amy Cappellazzo (then chairman at Christie’s Auction House), but it’s hard to take seriously the assumption that there was some golden age in the near past where it really was just about the art.
Maybe a more realistic approach is to concede that art has always been about a lot of things, and that the intrinsic appeal of a particular work, to an individual or to a lot of people, is one of those things. But don’t tell me that’s ever been all about the quality of the art, because the non-meritocratic nature of the art world has been well documented (and just how intrinsic the appeal of a given work may also be open to question). Given those provisos, it’s interesting to hear people involved in the art world (artists as well as buyers and sellers) talk about how they feel the art world has changed. It’s less interesting when they come off as a bunch of old people decrying how the young people aren’t doing it right (i.e., the way it was done in their own youth). There’s also a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous appeal to seeing what goes on in homes and galleries and auction houses that are otherwise off limits to the likes of us.
Also, on the plus side, The Next Big Thing is briskly paced and unpretentious (the gloved hands make regular reappearances, which helps keep things from getting overly serious). It’s a co-production of the independent production company Zeppers Film & TV, which specializes in producing cultural documentaries for public broadcasters and arthouse cinemas, the Dutch public-service broadcaster NTR. Given this context, it is perhaps not surprising that it feels like something you might find on PBS, and also that it works well on the small screen. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Next Big Thing is distributed on DVD by Icarus Films, with a release date of July 5 and can be streamed through Docuseek2. This version is also just under an hour in length, not the 71 minutes listed on IMDb.com. The only extras on the disc are the trailer for another film distributed by Icarus, Dreams Rewired, and clips from two other Icarus films, The Way Things Go and The Silence of Mark Rothko.