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A documentary that shows how difficult it is to understand art


Have you ever been in an art gallery, staring into space, wondering if it was art or if the maintenance staff had just forgotten to put it away? I love this feeling. For me, art is supposed to allow us to reevaluate everything we think we know about the world. But it underscores how delicate and capricious the judging of art can be — a subject also addressed by “Art Talent Show.”

Directed by Tomas Bojar and Adela Komrzy, “Artistic talent show» (out in theaters this week) follows hopeful applicants to the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, the oldest art school in the Czech Republic. When the film was on the festival circuit, it sparked comparisons to the films of Frederick Wiseman: patient, witty observational portraits of institutions that provoke audiences to draw conclusions about their ultimate theses. In this case, the subjects are young artists taking grueling entrance exams. This includes being questioned by professors who sometimes seem determined to annoy them a little, whether it’s getting a student to say that smoking might be good for the environment because it kills humans, or question their vision of the art market.

The teachers are not rigid traditionalists, but they are of a different generation than the students. This means that conversations about gender and sexuality, as well as commodification and what really counts as provocative, are all part of the film. But the film cleverly situates the whole process inside a larger institution, with the receptionist in the lobby providing a raging counterbalance to all the art there.

“Art Talent Show” is in itself provocative but also hilarious, both a send-up and a tribute to the complexity of contemporary art. This reminded me of another favorite documentary: “La Compétition” by Claire Simon (2016, streaming on Metrograph at home), which follows future filmmakers hoping to be admitted to the prestigious Parisian school La Fémis. They also face panels of professors who question them about their views and aspirations, and the results are just as revealing.

It is true that these two films made me very happy to have finished my studies a long time ago. But what I loved most was how they shed light on complex attitudes about the relationship between identity, craft, and art, even in very progressive contexts – and how they’re fun to watch while they do it.


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