“Specificity compromises spontaneity”: James Franco and Jeffrey Deitch go splat at MOCA

Hello sports fans, I’ve taken one for the team this week by watching James Franco’s “performance art work” on General Hospital—which, let’s not forget, launches MOCA’s brand new “performance series”—so you don’t have to. If you must witness the horror for yourself however, the climactic episodes (July 19, 22, and 23) will be up on Hulu for the next few days.

On the show, “Franco” is a serial killer who sees his ability to kill as a gift, and delights in turning his murders into “art,” which subsequently receives acclaim in the art world, culminating in a solo show at MOCA Pacific Design Center. Generating tension in the plot is his attempt to turn conflicted mobster Jason Morgan into his accomplice, and his aggravated disappointment when Morgan chooses to take the high road and control his own murderous urges. The plot climaxes when Franco lures Morgan to his show at MOCA, which is a trap composed of projected footage and replicated sets from past scenes they’ve shared together.

Franco the real-life actor and Franco the character both make a big deal about the “many layers” involved in this incredibly standard-issue serial killer plot. With his face projected large on MOCA’s wall, Franco the character addresses the audience directly: “Welcome to Francophrenia, the blurring of lines between illusion and reality, where what you see is most definitely not what you get.” During the opening reception, Franco grabs a spectator and threatens to kill her in front of Morgan; the audience gasps, not sure if it’s “real” or “performance art.” Alternately excited and frightened (and there is bad acting here galore), they egg Franco on to “complete his artwork,” and one confused person asks Morgan if he really has a gun.

Franco’s idea of complexity is juvenile at best; he seems to think that simply replicating scenarios through fake sets and endless video projections adds “layers,” I presume of meaning. These supposed layers boil down to nothing but a simple plot device: psychopath poses as artist and dupes gullible art world crowd with smoke and mirrors, making fun of its pretensions along the way. (The artist as murderer theme is far from new to the TV genre; someone should do a cultural studies thesis about it, if they haven’t already.) The Francophrenia speech, which references both Quadrophenia and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is an embarrassment to those two earlier works, which actually were complex and multi-layered.

The most significant “blurring of lines” appears to occur within the writers’ (and James Franco’s as well, since he’s obviously in cahoots with them) grasp of the term “performance art.” In another sadistic broadcast, Franco tells his audience: “Performance art appears spontaneous and of the moment, despite the fact that it’s carefully crafted, that every detail appears to be completely random. That’s the ultimate goal.” Umm, people, that’s the definition of theater, which many see as diametrically opposed to performance art. Didn’t James have a whole conversation about exactly that subject with his new best friend, Marina Abramović? Oh, I forgot—he looked completely stoned during that whole interview. Nevermind.

More indignities ensue. Here’s the final confrontation between Franco and Morgan:

Morgan: “You crossed the line.”
Franco: “No, I destroyed it. Art equals life!”

Allan Kaprow must be rolling over in his grave, along with the remains of MOCA’s credibility.

There is a very telling moment when Franco is poring over a diorama of his upcoming exhibition and receives a visit from an obsequious collector (well played by Bruce Davison), who tries to pin down what exactly Franco’s opening night “performance” will involve. With his trademark smirk, Franco puts him off by saying, “Specificity compromises spontaneity… and I am nothing if not full of surprises.”

Indeed, throughout these three episodes, Franco and the writers of GH categorically deny any specific engagement with the histories and dialogues of contemporary art, choosing instead to superficially sample its tropes and use them as plot decoration. The story ends with Franco diving off the roof of MOCA and going splat on the pavement below, while, predictably, the song “Mad World” plays and real-life performance artist Kalup Linzy intones some ominous lines in drag.

The insulting thing about exercises like this is that people like James Franco think it’s easy to play at the game of making contemporary art. In this interesting interview, shot on the day of filming at MOCA, Franco recognizes that Linzy cut his performative teeth on the world of soap operas, and says that he had to put Linzy in GH because “I thought it’d be interesting to take a real artist inspired by soaps, and put him in a real soap opera doing his own version of contemporary art.” Simplistic juxtapositions like this do not make good art. It’s easy for someone like Franco to make them happen because of the level of access he has, but the most he can achieve is to dumb down a dialogue that is already elusive to the general public.

It’s bad enough that this actor, who obviously has a feeble grasp of contemporary artmaking practices, is going around calling his day job on GH “performance art.” But the real shame, as I’ve said before, lies with Jeffrey Deitch (who, incidentally, delivers the world’s most nebbishy walk-on in the July 23 episode) for actually giving this dude a legitimate, global platform. It would have been fine to pull this kind of stunt at Deitch Projects, which positioned itself as an offbeat cabaret anyway. But to place it in the realm of critical discourse, which is precisely where a museum sits, shows that Deitch has no idea of the weight of his new responsibilities.

A film of this “performance event” is in the works, to be screened at MOCA at a later date. I presume it will involve lots and lots of layers.

8 Responses to ““Specificity compromises spontaneity”: James Franco and Jeffrey Deitch go splat at MOCA”

  1. I agree 100%. The response to this debauchery is spot on.

  2. “Deitch has no idea of the weight of his new responsibilities”

    Exactly. He doesn’t have the chops to run a museum, so he’s trying to appear as a game changer by taking the museum down to his level and pretending he’s a genius for it. The worst part is he shares a New York presumption that Angelenos are fundamentally shallow people who will endorse anything involving celebrity – that’s a projection that comes out of Manhattanite gossip culture and it always ends up falling flat here.

  3. Brava. And I so appreciate your synopsis, sparing me the pain, truly a compassionate act. Your writing is delightful and reminds me a bit of the old saw about political comics–they are cursed to do their best work in direct relationship to how terrible are circumstances and egregious are actions. Well done!

  4. Thank you!! It does amuse me to think of Franco as the Sarah Palin to my Tina Fey. I will aspire to that anyway, as this is criticism that clearly needs to happen!!

  5. This isn’t performance art. It’s soap opera fodder that merely borrows from performance art. It’s not even documentation of performance art but cheaply constructed, formulaic narrative that’s been performance art scented. Soap opera cancer victims don’t really have cancer.

    I can’t imagine Allan bothering to watch a soap opera let alone rolling over in his grave to spend inches writing about it. And whether or not Deitch can extract MOCA from its COMA is beside the point. Location fees are location fees and MOCA can’t turn down / shouldn’t turn down a dime.

  6. This is wonderful- thanks for taking one for the team!

  7. [...] and how much was not… and whether such terms even matter under these circumstances. (James Franco, you may eat your heart out here.) Adding yet another confounding layer to this fake/real [...]

  8. [...] actual Soap Opera Digest–style magazine that was financed by James Franco as part of his larger “performance art project.” It is a mildly amusing text, blending as it does several different pieces on Franco; real stories [...]

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