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A Critique of Roberta Smith’s Critique of James Franco’s New Film Stills

By Bobbi Lurie.


James Franco’s “New Film Still #35” (2013). Credit 2014 James Franco, Pace Gallery.

Below is proof that art criticism is calcified, defensive and, basically, dead … below is my critique of Roberta Smith’s Critique of James Franco’s exhibition at the Pace Gallery, New York, in the opinion section of the New York Times (Roberta Smith’s words are italicized):

Perhaps James Franco should just stick to acting. He remains embarrassingly clueless when it comes to art.

This is an absurd statement. How can James Franco be “embarrassingly clueless when it comes to art” when he is involved in just about every art form known to man, including the art of selfie-promotion? I think it would help this review if Roberta Smith were more specific. Is she referring to The NY Gallery Art Scene type of art, which died long before Hollywood started dying? Or is she trying to say that photography is something “exclusive,” being as everyone with a cell phone is a photographer of sorts?

Regardless, she is contradicting all of art history.

According to Marcel Duchamp, anything is art.

I mean, if the so-called “father of conceptual art” can put a urinal into an major art exhibition in 1917 – if that urinal inspired millions of artists to turn to conceptual art, found art, graffiti art, assemblage, installations, land art, performance art etc… then I think we need to remember The Art World is man-made, an entertainment, a business deal. It has more rules than Twitter and I’d say rule #1 is Remember Art History to maintain the illusion that such a thing as art even exists.  And please note: the only reason Marcel Duchamp was able to get that urinal in Society of Independent Artists was because he was already famous. Fame is the name of the game.

In his latest art world foray, following previous outings in galleries and commissions for Performa, Mr. Franco is filling a celebrity artist slot at Pace Gallery, similar to the one that Bob Dylan occupies at Gagosian.

So what? Isn’t art more about gossip than the object? Isn’t fame a commodity used by galleries who have to make a profit to pay the rent?

His Pace debut is “New Film Stills,” a series of his photographs that restages some of Cindy Sherman’s seminal “Untitled Film Stills” of 1977-80 with what is supposed to be respectful transparency but comes across as uncomprehending cynicism.

“Respectful transparency.” What does that mean? Is Roberta Smith referring to The Obama Administration? If so, I think the time has come for us all to admit we’ve all been more than a bit naïve.

In her film stills, Ms. Sherman all but disappeared into various female stereotypes…

She never disappeared. She was always there, as subject, object and viewer.

…bestowed upon women by film: the new-to-the-city secretary, the put-upon housewife, the sex kitten, the single glamour girl. Mr. Franco, in contrast, is never less than Mr. Franco, his mustache, beard or hairy legs in full view, his face in an expression of studied vulnerability or simply a look-at-me smirk.

Detail from James Franco’s New Untitled Film Still 21 (2013); detail from Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still 21 (1978)


This must be a joke. The Cindy Sherman of “Cindy Sherman Fame” has never made a thing which didn’t have Cindy Sherman in the photo. Her entire career consists of one idea, one concept repeated over and over and over.

Untitled Film Still 58 (1980) by Cindy Sherman


New Untitled Film Still 58 (2013) by James Franco

Maybe he sees what he’s doing as reverse feminism, an act of empathic dislocation — which is the argument made by the poet Frank Bidart…

Frank Bidart is a fine poet who is certainly aware that every catalog essay requires words like “empathic dislocation” to make it sound serious. To quote Marcel Duchamp:

“Tradition has been created by serious people who considered life a serious business and that it was necessary to produce serious things so that serious posterity would understand everything that these people, serious for their epoch, had done. I wanted to get rid of that …

in the catalog essay. Mainly, we sense…

“We” sense? Or “Roberta Smith” senses?

…Mr. Franco once more playing himself…

“Once more” “playing himself?” Don’t we always play ourselves? Wasn’t Cindy Sherman playing herself? Aren’t you playing yourself? (I’m playing myself.) In any event, by “playing himself” one might say he’s not afraid to have fun.

dipping a toe simultaneously in the waters of art…

The “waters” of art? More like a cesspool, wouldn’t you say? It must have been a relief for Pace Gallery to have a laugh for once.

…and demi-drag.

So what?

New Untitled Film Still 32 (2013) by James Franco


New Untitled Film Still 32 (1978) by Cindy Sherman


And it only gets worse.

Worse. Right. So why did Roberta Smith bother writing this so-called review? Tell us, Roberta Smith: because James Franco is famous and Pace Gallery is famous – and you want to stay famous which means backing Cindy Sherman because ie; one of her photographs just sold for over $3m dollars – and the famous gallery gave an exhibition to the famous actor-director-writer-musician PhD candidate-teacher-Oscar host-um –Instagram fanatic, selfie-promoter-mostly someone excited about life as in it’s okay to dabble… in many things etc.

In addition to reproducing the 25 or so images presented in the show, the catalog contains 65 excruciatingly sophomoric poems…

When an art critic calls something “excruciating,” shouldn’t they be inserting some fragment of a “poem” so we can judge for ourselves? Or at least see what you are referring to?

…written by Mr. Franco in reaction to nearly all the Sherman film stills. Often written from the woman’s point of view, these are either printed on their own or paired with the appropriate Franco do-over image.

The deep content here, beneath the entitled narcissism…

Wait.  No one is more narcissistic than Cindy Sherman. Otherwise, wouldn’t she have moved on or, at least included someone else in her photos?

…is a confused desperation…

In my “opinion,” “confused desperation” is what I’d call this so-called “review.”

…that seems to drive Mr. Franco’s pursuit of visual art.

Are you sure?

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him…

Really? Why would anyone feel sympathy for James Franco? His fame is what allows him to have a show at the Pace Gallery in the first place. Frank Bidart wrote the catalog – that’s a fantastic thing for James Franco (and also for Frank Bidart).

But I doubt that James Franco cares because after this exhibition in April, he had another exhibition in London and another exhibition of nude paintings of Seth Rogan, he was in at least two films, two plays, he published a collection of short stories, he’s giving classes on directing, he’s going to be giving a poetry reading with Frank Bidart and he just gave a poetry reading with Patti Smith.

 …while also wishing that someone or something would make him stop.


James Franco’s “New Film Still #27” (2013). Credit 2014 James Franco, Pace Gallery  



…A great deal of modern art is meant to be amusing. If Americans would simply remember their own sense of humor instead of listening to the critics …

– Marcel Duchamp.




Poet Bobbi Lurie‘s ongoing discussions with Marcel Duchamp can be found at Berfrois. She is the 440th commenter on Andrew Gallix’s essay on “the unread and unreadable” – the 440th comment(s) can be read here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 5th, 2014.