A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

“I am able to have sex with any beautiful woman I want just because I am so great.” In many ways — many more than are readily apparent — the film Art School Confidential is about this conceit and the myriad manifestations of its basic ethos. It is uttered early in the film by a precocious, impressionable boy named Jerome, standing before his elementary school classmates, dressed as Pablo Picasso; the ability to speak it of himself as well as of his hero will become his life goal.

Accepted to Strathmore, a small East Coast art school, Jerome (played now in post-adolescence by Max Minghella) arrives armed with a passion for his craft and the naïve wide-eyed idealism to pursue it past the point of reason. But like the barefoot hippie girl whose first step out of the safety of her parents’ car is onto a broken beer bottle on the campus entrance, his dreams will be tested and trampled before the end of the first semester.

Aware and proud of his skills, Jerome expects praise to meet his efforts from the start. Unfazed by the cynical tirades of his disinterested professor “Sandy” Sandiford (John Malkovich), he triumphantly displays his first assignment at the front of the room, awaiting the accolades of which he is undoubtedly deserving; when his self portrait is met apathetically, he is incredulous. He dismisses the work of his fellow students as inept (which it is), and is immediately attacked by his classmates who defend a canvas of scribbles and lines for its “humanity.” He makes only one friend, Bardo (Joel David Moore), a slacker dilettante of the highest order who has made a veritable career of dropping out of college only to re-enroll one semester later under a different concentration. He takes perverse pleasure in pointing out how every freshman can be codified to some form of cliché. Which, of course, makes him just another collegiate cliché himself, but that’s okay because he recognizes it. (He neglects to mention that such pseudo-self-awareness makes him still another cliché, but I digress.) That Bardo can’t pigeonhole him (“I haven’t got you figured out yet,”) should be the greatest compliment Jerome’s ever received.

Jerome’s focus is elsewhere, though, having recently become enamored of Audrey (Sophia Myles), the beautiful daughter of a celebrated pop artist who models for the Strathmore art classes. Audrey floats about the campus and the surrounding art scene, self-assured and aloof, rarely stopping, settling, or committing to any one person, place, or activity. Even as a model for Jerome’s class, she itches to free herself of abeyance, anxiously asking Sandy if the class can break so she can have a cigarette. That her attentions are so ephemeral only makes Jerome long for them more ardently. When her affection later turns from Jerome to Jonah (Matt Keeslar), another student in Sandy’s class, he is incensed. His choler would likely be little more than a passing displeasure if not for Jonah’s paintings; sparse, awkwardly locked into a two-dimensional and literal interpretation of their subjects, and with no sense of color or composition, Jonah’s work inexplicably wins the approval of his professor and his classmates, who celebrate his ability to “unlearn the rules of art.” For Jerome, this is the opening shot in a war, the spoils of which include both Audrey and the gallery show awarded to the student with the highest mark at the end of the semester.

Desperate to win both the girl and the gallery, and following Sandy’s throwaway advice too religiously and too superficially, Jerome attempts nearly every artistic style practiced by his classmates, but the bid for acceptance only results in harsher criticism. Stripped of his dignity, his passion, and his faith in both love and art, Jerome decides to take drastic steps to ensure his final project is the best in the class. Jimmy (a brilliant Jim Broadbent), a local hermetic drunk, takes a liking to Jerome. Formerly a student at Strathmore, Jimmy has grown antisocial and cynical, spending his days painting surreptitiously in his apartment, entertaining company only when they buy their way into his good graces with booze, and “postponing suicide for the slim chance that you might one day possibly see some glorious plague or pestilence bring horrible suffering to your hateful species.” His colorful rants about the politics of the art world, which once struck Jerome as crass and misanthropic, now resound with overwhelming truth. Disgusted by himself as much as he is by mankind in general, Jimmy agrees to let Jerome present his paintings as Jerome’s own work, an act which will ultimately incriminate Jerome in an ongoing murder investigation.

When Jerome, as Picasso, says at the beginning of the film “I am able to have sex with any beautiful woman I want,” it is an afterthought, an added bonus that bears mentioning. Yes, he wants adulation, he wants fame, and he wants to reap the rewards of being a highly respected and successful artist, but more importantly, he wants to be worthy of these things. His art may be a means to this end, but there is no denying his talent or the passion with which he pursues the craft itself. His work is a representation of how he sees the world, and as such, his portraiture is more personal and more self-revealing than any of the abstract “message” art created by the other students in his class. As Audrey astutely observes, Jerome’s portrait of her bears a striking similarity to a portrait she has seen of one of Picasso’s models. It is telling that Jerome strives for the adoration of “any woman” he wants rather than “all the women” he wants; he seeks a muse as much as he desires a romantic interest, and believes he has found both in Audrey — believes, in fact, that the two are practically inseparable from one another. For Jerome, asking if a woman is the impetus for his art or if he creates art to attract a woman is akin to asking which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Patrick Suskind writes, “The price paid for love is always the loss of reason, abandonment of the self,” and true to this notion, it is when Jerome’s passion for Audrey — or more accurately for what Audrey represents — overwhelms his passion for art and for creativity that he stumbles. Every time Jerome paints in a different style, he is trying on a new personality, hoping that one will fit just as well as, if not better than, the one with which he has thus far arrayed himself. He begins to lose his identity, focusing increasingly on his goal and less on the path which will take him there.

John Chamberlain says at one point in Who Gets to Call it Art? that “artists aren’t really acceptable in general terms to the public.” That film, Peter Rosen’s documentary about Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler, is a testament to the creative spirit and the struggle for acceptance and understanding. The true artist — as the cliché often goes — is someone who suffers, who feels more deeply, and who lacks the capacity to express himself in more commonplace terms.

When, in Art School Confidential, a female student criticizes another Strathmore professor (Anjelica Huston) for the abundance of “dead, white, male” artists discussed in class (a criticism also made of Geldzahler’s selections), a male student comes to the professor’s defense. Most artists are aesthetically inferior, he notes, and for them, their work is the only tool they have in attracting women and advancing socially; they come to define themselves through their work and the paintings themselves become their identity. In this respect sincerity and integrity are absolutely essential to the artist, not only for the quality of his work but also for the quality of his life. Even when a former Strathmore student who has recently acquired a certain degree of celebrity is derided for his brash, aberrant demeanor, Jerome can’t help but respect him and what he stands for. “I’m an asshole because I’m an asshole,” he states simply, just as we all are; that he’s acclaimed and publicly celebrated gives him the freedom to be so, without the usual concession to social niceties.

Throughout the film’s final act, screenwriter Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff assert their belief that honesty, passion, and sincerity will outlast a superficial allegiance to any trend or deception. Great artists are rarely appreciated in their own time because it is only after the lesser practitioners have faded into obscurity and disappeared with the fads which spawned and nurtured them that the general public is able to acknowledge and embrace the universality that paradoxically springs from an artist’s unyielding devotion to his own individuality. There are those who will watch this film, confused by the eccentricities of its characters, put off by its tonal shift in the third act, and dismissive of what they will consider a wildly unbelievable ending; for those who still have faith in the power of art to surmount the hypocrisy, posturing, and cynicism which too often try to drag it down, the final frames will damn near bring you to tears.

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