The art world is a fickle place. What is hot is very soon not, but what is yet not, does not want to be hot, but when it becomes hot, does everything it can to convince everyone that it is not. Confused? Well that is the whole point of Beautiful Losers.
This documentary by Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard tells the story of a group of young American ˜artists’ (the scare quotes can not be big enough here) and their journey from their childhoods as misfits, punks, skateboarders and general ˜losers’, to globally recognised artists and marketers for big corporate brands. They did not have any formal training, only making ˜art’ based on their everyday experiences, but in so doing, helped to create some of the most recognisable art forms that exist today.
The film starts off by delving into the histories of the main artists, with many of them reliving their childhood memories and suggesting how their formative years aided their growing up (or not, as the case may be) into the artists they are today. Focusing predominately on skateboarding, graffiti and other forms of subversive street art, the films charts the reluctance of these people to be considered ˜mainstream’ artists. New York, Los Angeles and other major cities in the US where these people flocked to in their young adult lives become arenas for their subcultural creativity. But far from shunning them (like their suburban, childhood home towns did), these big cities found their ˜art’ inspiring and fuelled their practices.
The film culminates in a large group of them being invited to Tokyo and effectively given carte blanche to do whatever it was their artistic brain would allow. They were allowed to ˜go nuts’, and we see how they spent vast amounts of money (given to them by wealthy financiers) to not only put on traditional exhibitions, but to do things like stage a demolition derby in downtown Tokyo, break the rules and generally ˜do what they do’. By the end of the film, the majority of the artists featured have ended up working for large corporations, or having their work sponsored in some way. This ˜selling out’ sits uncomfortably with some, others are more philosophical about their artistic trajectory, excepting it as the natural artistic ˜cycle’.
The film brings to the fore a lot of the angst that many of the protagonists have felt during their lives and how they used skateboarding, but also other forms of subversive behaviour to vent their frustration against whatever it was they were angry at “ their family, their school, their friends, society, life (and so on and so on). The stories that are regaled by the artists themselves are fairly bland, the entire ˜edgy-artist-selling-out’ narrative is a tired one, yet this film has enough vignettes to give this old adage a fresh twist. One particularly engrossing story sees Harmony Korine nonchalantly talking about how one of his childhood friends was decapitated over a dispute, and the severed head placed in a playground that now young children and toddlers frequent.
The scene ends with him saying to one of the young children, did you know they found my friend Samuel’s head back there in ’86? Incidentally, Korine is perhaps most famous for writing the harrowing drama film Kids (1995) “ it says a lot. Another rare moment of poignancy comes when the artists are describing how one of the females of their ˜clique’, Margaret Kilgallen, was given a choice between her life and the life of her unborn child. Relating her actions into the wider underground artistic movement (as some of the artists do) tells of how such activity is often viewed with far more gravitas than it perhaps needs to be.
The film is an insightful glance into the lives of underground artists and how they struggle with the commercialisation of their art. It does not flow as well as it could, and there are times where the narrative repeats itself to the point of tedium. There will also be some who suggest that perhaps the film is not as critical to the process of ˜selling out’ as it could be. However, the film speaks more to the confusing and conflicted development of human lives from childhood to adulthood, more than the art world per se. It is a deeply humanistic film in this regard, leaving the more erudite of critics to squabble over what is hot and what is not.
Beautiful Losers is a journey through the artistic lives of untrained, young, underground artists, and how they found themselves the centre of the art world without even realising it. The film has moments of real human emotion, and contains some very challenging narratives of what constitutes the confusing nature of the ˜art world’.