Robert Cenedella considers himself an art world enfant terrible. To hear him tell it, he is out of touch with the abstract expressionists and Pop artists of his generation and shunned by the industry’s taste-makers. Accordingly, he has dedicated his career to creating cleverly updated, technicolor takes on George Bellows and other Ashcan School artists that satirize the self-important, commerce-driven world of contemporary art and American culture. But Cenedella’s status as bomb-throwing rebel who dares to speak truth to power is debatable at best. If the painter fancies himself an outsider, he conveniently forgets that one of his signature shows was a coattail-riding send-up of Warhol; if he decries the influence of corporate money in art, he glosses over the fact that he himself worked in the upper echelons of a New York advertising agency for a decade.
Art Bastard, a documentary about Cenedella’s life, reveals the artist’s contradictions almost despite itself. Director Victor Kanefsky is all too ready to take the Cenedella’s claims at face value, resulting in near-hagiography that dispenses with any dramatic tension that could be mined by exploring the dissonance between Cenedella’s words and actions. But Art Bastard has deeper problems than its credulous handling of its subject matter. The film has a jagged, unfinished quality. Interviews are cut off mid-sentence; music cues are used and reused again within one five-minute scene. In one instance, Kanefsky (seemingly unintentionally) recycles footage that has already appeared earlier in the film.
The structure of the film is also jarring and illogical. For example: the title Art Bastard refers to the fact that Cenedella was raised by a man who was not his biological father. Any truly worthy documentarian would keep a lid on this revelation at least until he is able to flesh out his subject. In this film, however, it is revealed less than ten minutes in, almost as soon as we find out Cenedella is a painter. This lack of discipline or concern for narrative defines the Art Bastard.
The relationship of art and commerce, and how this fraught ground is navigated by working artists, can be an engaging topic, albeit one that has been covered ad nauseam. Art Bastard is a portrait of a man who, by his own accounting, has flagrantly disregarded the opinions of the art industry’s moneyed interests. Unfortunately, the film seems only to be concerned with aggrandizement of its subject, at the expense of any thoughtful consideration of his life’s work.