Who Gets to Call It Art?
Dir. Peter Rosen. 2006. N/R. 80mins. Documentary.
Who gets to call it art? Henry Geldzahler does. (Make that did: He died in 1994.) Unfortunately this spotty, intermittently interesting doc doesn’t go far enough in explaining how or why.
Geldzahler, whose family got rich in the Belgian diamond trade before immigrating to America, was 15 when he caught the modern-art bug in 1950 (he blew his bar mitzvah money on abstract expressionist paintings). In 1960 he joined the staff of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and soon established himself as the city’s most influential curator, collector and scenester. A major player in the rise of playful Pop art (and the concomitant decline of unsmiling Abstract Expressionism), Geldzahler still had the power to anoint artists as geniuses in the 1980s, when he conferred that mantle on Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The archival footage of the Beatnik ’50s and the groovy ’60s are fun, and Rosen elicits entertaining quotes out of the gregarious Geldzahler’s surviving celebrity friends. But the film feels massively weighted on its subject’s side—a few grousing philistines aside, you wouldn’t think the owlish little power broker had an enemy in the world.
Ultimately Who dodges the most interesting issues raised by its title, implicitly arguing that aesthetes of genius make objective calls about artists of genius and that’s all there is to it.—Cliff Doerksen