“In order to be a great artist, you simply have to be a great artist,” so says Strathmore Institute alumnus, Marvin Bushmiller (Adam Scott). “There’s nothing to learn, so you’re all wasting your time.” One is likely to agree with him after watching Art School Confidential. Illustrator Daniel Clowes turned his experiences as an art student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn into a comic book, and later the screenplay on which the film is based. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, the plot delivers a checklist of art world stereotypes with a machine-like efficiency that leaves no one unscathed.
The filmmakers apparently hold a great deal of contempt for the art world at large, offering us zero characters we can really look up to. Everyone in the story seems to have an ulterior motive. Our would-be hero, Jerome (Max Minghella), is a freshman at Strathmore, and we’re meant to sympathize with him as his is classmates dismiss his skilled, but illustrative, drawings. There seems to be no reason behind their capricious tastes for the haphazard and confounding.
For his part, Max has some questionable motivations of his own. He wants to be “the greatest artist of the 21st century,” not because he thinks he has something to say, but so girls will like him. In an early scene, we learn that Max once dressed up as Picasso for a school project, citing the painter’s success with women as an admirable quality. During the course of the film, Max pours all his efforts into impressing Audrey (Sophia Myles), the model from his figure drawing class. This is presented as a nobler plight than those of his classmates, who are apparently just egomaniacs trying to be as weird as possible.
Most of Strathmore’s teachers are presented as apathetic failures, with the exception of Anjelica Huston, who plays a warm-hearted art history professor. The rest seem more concerned with their careers than with teaching, and one literally spells it out on the chalkboard that he doesn’t care whether or not his students even come to class. Meanwhile, Professor “Sandy” Sandiford (John Malkovich) perpetually tries in vain to revive interest in his minimalist paintings of triangles. “I was one of the first,” he reminisces.
Strathmore, named for the manufacturer of artists’ materials, is clearly located in New York City but, for some reason, none of the students seem to be aware of the fact that the city is full of high profile galleries. Instead, they spend most of their spare time at a coffee shop called Broadway Bob’s, the place “where everyone gets their first big break.” Broadway Bob (Steve Buscemi, who portrayed bad boy art star Gregory Stark in New York Stories) grants a solo show in his café to whomever earns the highest grade in Strathmore’s end-of-year reviews (because that’s how these things work).
On his way to scoring the next coveted show amidst the coffee grounds is Jonah (Matt Keeslar), a jock who paints cartoony pictures of cars, tanks and baseball players (they were actually painted by Clowes while he was a student at Pratt). Although everyone praises him for his work, Jonah turns out to be an undercover cop who doesn’t even care about being an artist. Enter his fellow law enforcement officers trying to solve a campus murder case (an oddly random subplot) who refer to the art students as “fucking freaks.” It’s the classic scenario of “regular people” who briefly encounter the art world, expose its duplicity and ultimately reject it (see Beverly Hills Cop, Law & Order, and Designing Women, among others).
Although the extreme stereotypes in Art School Confidential will strike a chord of truth for anyone who has ever attended an art college, such cautionary tales will hardly deter ambitious young artists from the long, hard path to glory. Endless generations have heard and ignored the warnings of poverty and failure, such as Sandy’s advice to “go to banking school or web site school—anywhere but art school” if you want to make money. Undergraduate tuition and fees at Pratt currently amount to $44,804 per year, but a fine arts degree is not intended to prepare one for the labor force. It’s an exchange of ideas and a chance to outdo the ideas of one’s peers. As with the entertainment industry, society assumes that fame is the ultimate goal of the artist, and that can only be achieved by those who get our attention, however they can, preferably before dying.