The Art of Celebrity: Why James Franco Is Allowed to Get Away With Making Terrible Art

James Franco Film Stills

The reviews are in for “James Franco: New Film Stills,” the artist’s new photography show at Pace Gallery. And they’re not good. In the New York Times, Roberta Smith opens her review with the recommendation that “Franco should just stick to acting. He remains embarrassingly clueless when it comes to art.” In New York magazine, Jerry Saltz (Smith’s husband) concurs, even comparing Franco’s art unfavorably to that of George W. Bush. On ArtNet, Benjamin Sutton also invoked the ex-president, saying, “Franco’s new exhibition at Pace is bad. It’s not a George W. Bush–caliber train wreck, but it’s close.” And in what is perhaps the most critical nail in the coffin, artist Cindy Sherman, upon whose work Franco is riffing, had this to say, “I don’t know that I can say it’s art.” Ouch.

And yet despite not garnering critical accolades for this show, or anything really save his acting (and even then, only sometimes), Franco continues to be seen in many circles—and even embraced—as not just a polymath, but a genuinely talented one. It’s one thing that his work generates attention—he is, after all, a famous actor who actively courts our collective gaze through his frequent use of social media—but it’s another thing that he receives a certain kind of regard from certain corners of the establishment, namely, the people who run the venerable institutions which ought to be immune to the charm of a celebrity flavor of the month. Even Sherman noted that while she didn’t really consider Franco’s “Film Stills” to be art, the fault lay less with Franco than with Pace, saying that she thinks “it’s weirder that Pace would show them than that he would make them.”

Which, yes! It is weird. Not to be overly disingenuous here, but is it really too much to ask that there still be people who serve as gatekeepers at our cultural institutions? When someone like James Franco, who consistently churns out derivative and subpar work that is on par with that of a particularly unimaginative BFA candidate (and, no, I didn’t mean MFA) is given the tacit endorsement of institutions like Pace or Scribner (which published Franco’s short story collection, Palo Alto), or, for that matter, Yale where Franco is still (maybe?) a PhD candidate, it transforms what might be seen as little more than a vanity project into something that has a good deal more artistic weight.  It is, of course, understandable that in the art world—as in the publishing and academic worlds—a certain amount of built-in media attention is sought, and that there is more money to be made off an artist or writer or student who already has name recognition and can guarantee a certain amount of press coverage no matter what. However, that kind of rationale makes much more sense when it comes to places that don’t already have a secure reputation and a healthy amount of already existing media attention. But Pace does. Scribner does. Yale does. Franco will not make or break any of these institutions, so why do the people behind them continue to kiss his ass?

Recently, James Franco made a social media blunder when he attempted to hook up with a 17-year-old girl via Instagram. (What? Haven’t we all been there?) While Franco immediately owned up to the social media snafu, many people wondered if he’d done it on purpose, as publicity for Palo Alto, the upcoming film adaptation of his book. Had Franco gone meta on us? Is he just smarter than us all? The mental contortions that people will go through to forgive Franco for his mediocrity as an artist are truly impressive, and it can’t just be because of the fear of being called a little bitch by the ultra-sensitive actor. In fact, it has far more to do with the culture at large, and its willingness to accept that Franco’s narcissism is not just a sign of the most banal sort of privilege and entitlement, but is instead an indicator of some kind of larger worth. It has far more to do with living in a culture where art has become ephemeral (and for many people, exists solely within the bounds of an Instagram frame or a blink -and-you’ve-missed-it viral blog post), and so even the most established people and institutions flock to laud a person who seems to have transcended normal limitations and is constantly able to keep himself—and those with whom he’s associated—in the public eye. And maybe all of that would be ok if Franco was any good at what he gets attention for. But he’s not. His superficial take on Sherman’s iconic work is insulting to everyone who knows anything about art. But he keeps on getting attention (including, of course, right here) and he will continue to until he stops getting platforms upon which to showcase his work. And while some people, like Roberta Smith, think that Franco’s work is sincere, and thus find it “hard not to feel some sympathy for him, while also wishing that someone or something would make him stop,” I find it hard to have any sympathy for him or the institutions that support him, instead just wishing that all this bullshit would just go away. It’s bound to sooner or later, but it’d certainly be nice if it was sooner.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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