The first thing that I need to establish is that I don’t think Velvet Buzzsaw is a particularly good movie. The characters are all broad caricatures of stereotypes that we associate with the high art world, from the snooty critic with the boxy glasses to the flighty genius who just can’t make anything worthwhile since he got sober. Everyone is blandly terrible at best and deeply unlikable at worst. Beyond that, the horror elements are more goofy than scary, and the driving force behind all the spooky stuff that happens is remarkably cliche (a man with a long history of mental illness and abuse wants all of his art destroyed after his death because it contains the totality of his tortured existence, and when that obviously doesn’t happen, people start dying). There’s very little on offer here that’s genuinely good horror or even remotely interesting character work.
And despite all of those flaws, I rather unabashedly love this movie.
I think that the fun of the movie comes in its total capitulation to the stereotypes of its subject. We expect a story about vapid, self-obsessed people backbiting each other in pursuit of rather callow goals all camouflaged by the perception of prestige that working in the realm of high art confers. As outsiders we not-so-secretly suspect that all this modern art stuff is mostly just nonsense used as an excuse for absurdly rich people to play status games while an underclass of creative leeches take their cut as facilitators to the grand lie, and Velvet Buzzsaw is happy to confirm all those suspicions. The only place where it suggests a certain sincerity is in its portrayal of the artists who get commodified by this community themselves. They might be flighty and a little obtuse in the ways they communicate their ideas, but they have a purity of vision that this film at least proposes isn’t tainted by baser motivations like trying to turn a profit. It’s a charmingly misguided assertion given the long history of artists making art specifically to get paid, but the horror premise wouldn’t work if you allow a complex idea like artistic vision being able to coexist with trying to make money off a desirable skill to inhabit the viewer’s mind. It’s much more thematically resonant if all artists have no interest in profit instead of just the one at the center of the story whose work is exploited. Still, these flaws in the core premise can be forgiven because there’s such a total commitment to it in the film’s execution.
While I would be totally content with a farce about the art world, which is very much how the film’s first half plays out (there are plots and subplots revolving around different gallery owners vying to be the exclusive dealers of works by livings artists, a museum curator on the verge of hitting the big time as the art equivalent of a personal shopper for some unseen wealthy patron who doesn’t actually know anything about art themselves, and gallery assistants working their various side hustles until they can score a real opportunity that’s entirely dependent on the whims of the aforementioned capricious gallery owners), this is still a horror movie, and like any good piece of horror there’s usually some morality tale buried beneath the copious amounts of blood and paint. Appropriately enough for the subject, the theme that Velvet Buzzsaw settles on is the question of art’s purpose. The core transgression is the discovery and decision to sell the artwork of our ghost, Vetril Dease, after his sudden death in obscurity. Dease spent his life using his art to exorcise the demons of his past, and he makes it clear that his final wishes are for his entire oeuvre to be burned. One of the struggling gallery assistants who lives in the same apartment building as Dease, Josephina, chooses to use his paintings as leverage to establish her own reputation as a serious dealer in the art scene, but she rapidly gets co-opted by her boss, Rhodora. From there, all the people in Josephina and Rhodora’s orbits get caught up in ever escalating acts of vengeance targeting anyone who has profited from Dease’s work. The moral becomes starkly clear late in the third act as Josephina, growing ever more terrified by the string of deaths that happen in proximity to Dease’s art, argues with Damrish, an up-and-coming artist who has abandoned Rhodora’s gallery to return to his roots with a local art collective. “What’s the point of art if nobody sees it?” she demands, completely baffled that Damrish would choose a smaller platform for his work than what Rhodora’s gallery offers. Immediately following this exchange, Josephina suffers her own close encounter with hostile artwork.
Damrish, if you’re curious, survives completely unscathed as someone who simply appreciates Dease’s work without trying to use it for his own gain.
The film’s moral appears in sharp relief; art is a thing done for the gratification of the artist first, and if they choose to share it with others then that is a gift. The people who make their livings running the distribution infrastructure connected with the creation of art are little more than parasites deserving of contempt for debasing a more noble endeavor. It’s an incredibly facile conclusion if you stop for even a moment to consider how distribution and publication are necessary companion industries for any artist who might want to, y’know, make a living with their art, but the basic idea that art is a thing we do to satisfy ourselves sticks in my head. All the absurdly terrible decisions this movie makes with its story sort of fall away in the face of the realization that someone conceived of this bizarre treatise on the nobility of art and then went through all the work to get Netflix to bankroll its production. The question of the film’s own self awareness turns into an endlessly fascinating ourobouros that I’ve been turning over for a couple weeks now with no clear conclusion to be reached. All I know at this point is that I had way more fun watching Velvet Buzzsaw than I expected to, and for that I am glad it’s a piece of art that exists.