I’ve watched quite a few documentaries having to do with the art world recently, and always one of the questions raised in my mind is what degree of objectivity there is in an assessment of the quality of art. I don’t say it’s a hundred percent convention, that if the art powers that be reversed all their assessments completely to make what is now priceless worthless, and what is now worthless priceless, that that would be equally valid. I acknowledge that surely there’s something non-arbitrary in designating certain works good or even great art. On the other hand, I’m skeptical enough to say there’s a pretty significant degree of arbitrariness to it, albeit less than a hundred percent. From my outsider standpoint, “Something is good art because experts say it is” is at least as true as “Experts say something is good art because it is.”
Once again, Waiting for Hockney raises these issues. And once again I come away from it thinking that value judgments about art are neither totally objective nor total bullshit (but probably a bit closer to the latter).
This art documentary is much closer to something like Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? than Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World or Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Artist in that it’s not a biographical celebration of a famous artist, but a sometimes humorously whimsical account of a lay person or outsider’s misadventures dealing with the high mucky mucks of the art world.
And I like this type of art documentary more. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?, but I did like it.
This is the unusual story of Billy Pappas. Pappas is someone who had a minimal background in art—pencil sketch portraits specifically—but for all intents and purposes was a working class guy getting by tending bar and such.
But he got it into his head that he could make a big splash in the art world not just by doing something well, but by doing something unprecedented, and doing it well.
What he decided to do was to recreate a famous Richard Avedon photograph of Marilyn Monroe, but to an almost unimaginable level of detail, with way more dots per inch than even a modern digital photo typically has, let alone what the old Avedon photo had.
To do this meant working full time for close to a decade, wearing ultra-powerful magnifying glasses, learning how to fill in the “gaps” in the original photo by closely examining other photos and live models.
He was able to pull this off financially—not working so he could be a virtual hermit and obsessively devote all his time to this project for that many years—because he lived at home with his parents, and more importantly because he became friends with a wealthy local man who gave him money every month to live on, with the understanding that it would be paid back if and only if Pappas became a rich artist.
The financial backer is interviewed at length in the film, and he is somewhere between eccentric and just plain nuts. Whether there was a homosexual connection between them or something else going on isn’t made clear.
Pappas also collects a few other local dignitaries to at least provide moral support and suggestions for breaking into the art world.
He decides that artist David Hockney is the key person who can endorse him and get his sketch accepted by the art powers that be. I don’t know who David Hockney is, beyond his name being at most very slightly familiar to me, and I don’t know why him instead of some other current big name artist, but the great quest becomes to get Hockney to look at his work.
A major step forward is getting a big shot art critic and academic who is friends with Hockney and has worked with him to act as a middleman. Shown the sketch, the critic is very impressed, certainly by the uniqueness of it and the enormity of the effort that went into it, but to at least some extent also by its value as art. He is indeed able to arrange a meeting with Hockney.
So Pappas and his supporters fly out to Los Angeles to meet with Hockney for the great climactic moment of the film. Which, alas, cannot be filmed, since Hockney would not agree to it, nor would he allow himself to be interviewed for the film.
In some ways it’s interesting, though, for that meeting to be left mysterious. Because instead we get the perceptions of Pappas and various of the parties who were there, and it becomes an illustration of how dramatically perceptions can differ, and how they can be colored by expectations, by hearing what you want to hear or fear you’ll hear.
Pappas at no point comes across as mentally ill or really all that weird in this movie. He’s obsessive in a sense, but it’s more like somebody with a hobby he really gets into and devotes a lot of time to, rather than an irrational, creepy kind of fanatic. It’s not clear he’s even all that delusional about it. He mostly thinks he’s doing something artistically important and innovative, but he’s humble enough to admit plenty of doubt on that score. He’s even more uncertain how Hockney or other experts will assess his work.
Really he’s a very likable, regular guy. He’s got a dream and he’s pursuing it. It’s unusual, but not indicative of something major wrong with him, at least not to my eye. It’s hard not to root for him.
Plus his family, especially his mother, comes across very favorably in this movie. The mother is so loving and supportive, so emotional when she talks about how much this all means to her son, that that made me root for this family all the more. She’s driven to tears contemplating the possibility that her genuinely kind, decent, humble son could either be crushed by failure or have his personality altered for the worse by success. When her Billy is off to meet Hockney, she’s a nervous wreck waiting to hear how things went.
Then the film kind of goes back and forth as far as whether it’s developing to a happy ending or sad ending. There are times it’s pure feel-good “Oh my God, everyone is being totally receptive to my sketch and telling me how wonderful it is, and Hockney couldn’t be nicer and more encouraging!” Then there are times Hockney and the rest of the art world seem more like the arrogant art assholes of Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?, refusing to return phone calls, and disdainfully kicking aside this uppity outsider.
The film does tell you how it all worked out and how Pappas responded to the verdict, so it doesn’t leave you hanging.
The style of the film is mostly fine. It’s told in a fast-paced, upbeat way, but straightforward enough that you can always follow the story.
The filmmaker overdoes the clever visuals just a bit. Like if someone being interviewed uses a metaphor to make some point, you’ll see the literal version of that on screen. That’s not a big deal though, and mostly the film flows well.
Then there’s the question of the sketch itself. The filmmaker chooses not to reveal it until halfway or so through the movie. I like that timing. It builds the suspense and lets you learn about the work through description first, but it doesn’t get too cute and push that by waiting until the very end to show it (or worse yet not show it at all).
Once it is shown, though, it really doesn’t clear up the question of whether it has significant value as art. I was watching it on a TV, and not even a high definition one, so it’s not like what I was looking at had thousands of dots per inch like the sketch does live. So it pretty much looks like somebody sketched the photo and did a very good but not perfect job in duplicating it.
So even after seeing it, you still have to go more by how it’s described than by what you’re actually seeing. And you can understand why some people, including art experts, could be really impressed with it, and some could shrug it off as a pointless waste of a decade.
It’s an extraordinary achievement in the carving the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin sense, but is it also extraordinarily good art? I still don’t know.
I suppose I’m more favorably than unfavorably disposed toward it, just because what makes it special is stuff I can actually understand, like the superhuman effort it takes to make a portrait with that rate of dots per inch, rather than just vague pronouncements from experts that amount to “It’s good [or bad], just trust us” in an area where expertise itself is dubious.
Waiting for Hockney is a fun and interesting documentary. As I say, I didn’t get into it quite as much as Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?, but it deserves a thumbs up.