By Ian Peek
Art Bastard. Surely, the most magnificently titled movie of all time?
The ‘Art Bastard’ of the title is Robert (Bob) Cenedella, an American artist, and the movie premiere is a documentary biopic of his life recently screened at the Manchester Film Festival. The words ‘Art Bastard’ suggest a hard-hitting, confrontational aspect that the film just doesn’t have. We won’t be watching an angry punk, spitting into the face of the establishment between pogos. Instead, we follow a mild-mannered man, taking a more considered approach to art. A man who is, “An artist first, and a bastard second.”
Confrontation can come without shouting and we don’t need harsh words when art can deliver the message. In this film, Cenedella is determined that art be about the world we live in. His early paintings are pictures of the NY that surrounds him; tightly-observed canvases, crammed to bursting with life. The bustle hums from every corner, and a scene unfolds everywhere you look.
A later soundbite echoes, “You could look at one of Bob’s paintings every day for the rest of your life, and every morning, you’d find something new to look at.” We’re accustomed to grand statements like this overblowing the world of art, filling it with smug, back-patting pretentiousness. Here though, the statement is easy to agree with. For you and me too, not just the art-critics.
Bob doesn’t approach the world in a once-removed way, scrutinising it through layers of irony or conceit. His art offers a plainer speaking, tell-it-like-it-is approach. Offering a crude analysis, his compositions might remind you of Where’s Wally? crossed with a dirty Blackpool postcard. They have that Sgt. Pepper draw, compelling you to explore every aspect of the scene. Bob’s art has humour. Playfulness. It doesn’t exclude you from admission if you can’t show artsy credentials. Scratch that though; you won’t have the opportunity. Bob’s work isn’t the sort of stuff they hang in galleries.
That might be the movie’s main point. The bastardry we’re invited to question is Bob’s seeming illegitimacy in the world of art, his broad exclusion from it. Arguably, he’s an outsider in a world which welcomes – is perhaps even populated by – outsiders. Someone still humbly teaching in the academy where he was once mentored by the artist George Grosz.
He’s a satirist and a chronicler of history. Someone they haven’t needed to censor because they never put him on show in the first place. In his own words, “It’s not what they show, it’s what they don’t show.”
“Pay attention to what they’re not showing you.”