When Jerome Platz (Zachary Maurer) is in middle school, he and his classmates are assigned to dress up as their favorite historical figures, then describe themselves to a room full of blank, made-up and bearded faces. He chooses Picasso, wearing iconic striped shirt and beret. “Even though I am super-short and bald,” says the boy solemnly, “I can have sex with any woman I want, just because I am so great.”
For young Jerome, art is like that, a means to an end. Tortured by schoolyard bullies, he dreams of being “so great” that he can get what he wants, be it sex, money, or some modicum of respect. This makes him much like other artists, according to Art School Confidential, whose art is not very good and whose ambitions are shaped by the marketplace that loves them. When he’s of age (and played by Max Minghella), and despite his parents’ objections, he leaves the burbs for a New York City art school, Strathmore Academy. Here he finds the types of students director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes already zapped in Ghost World: the kiss-ass, the vegetarian hippie, the skater, the angry lesbian, the art school chick, and Jerome’s roommates, gay fashion major and Matthew (Nick Swardson) and horror aficionado/film student Vince (Ethan Suplee).
Art School Confidential goes on to name these caricatures, via Jerome’s drawing class buddy, Bardo (Joel David Moore), who admits he is also a “living cliché,” the “guy who keeps dropping out and changing his majors because he’s afraid he sucks at everything.” Clever as he is — something like the boy version of Enid — Bardo disappears for much of the film after making a few choice snarks, for instance, correctly diagnosing Jerome as the guy “who never got laid in high school,” but lucky for him, art school is a “pussy buffet.” Sadly, the film focuses on Jerome’s less acute perspective: his date-montage shows his utter inability to make a decision, until he meets and fixates on their languid life-drawing model, Audrey (Sophia Myles), whose father happens to be a famous Strathmore grad and whose cynicism toward the business of art doesn’t staunch Jerome’s tedious enthusiasm.
This even when he meets Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), a Strathmore graduate of the completely furious, resentful, and depleted variety. Locked away in his grubby apartment, Jimmy paints a little, drinks a lot, and rails incessantly at the wholesale corruption of art. “Are you exceptionally skilled as a cocksucker?” Jimmy asks Jerome on their first encounter, announcing that this is his most assured route to greatness. Jerome is duly horrified, Jimmy turns back to his tv show (The Facts of Life), and the youngster goes forth into the dark night, where he might ponder his options.
Jerome’s role models at Strathmore are hardly more encouraging. Drawing instructor Sandiford (John Malkovich) spends class time on the phone trying to set up a show for his own remarkably dull paintings; art history teacher Sophie (Anjelica Huston), asks the right question (“What makes art timeless?”), then listens wearily as the students spout PC rage at the dead white males who made such “implementations of masculinity.” And when a successful grad (Adam Scott) returns for a lecture, he advises the wannabes to follow their “true natures,” even if, as in his case, such pursuit makes him “an asshole.” After all, he asks, “What could be more beautiful than truth and freedom?”
When his own, very earnest work is dismissed in class, Jerome suspects that talent and quality of work are not, in fact, the means to the end he wants so badly. Worse, pretty boy Jonah (Matt Keeslar) wins praise in drawing class, his childlike images of tanks and cars set against splashes of yellow and orange making classmates scramble for language: “It’s as if he’s unlearned everything,” they gush. “Where have you been all my life?” asks Sandiford, whose performance may or may not be “authentic.” Later, during a one-on-one meeting at his home Sandiford explains that Jonah’s work has a “nowness, it’s exciting.” Jerome’s has something else. The teacher encourages his pupil to “experiment with al the arts” and, not incidentally, “all the lifestyles.” Placing his hand encouragingly on Jerome’s thigh, Sandiford promises, “I am here to facilitate that experiment in whatever way I can, in or outside the classroom.”
As much as Jerome’s harsh appraisals of his peers and his teachers appear to be warranted, Art School Confidential doesn’t exactly endorse his aspirations. Depressed when Audrey — that girl of his arty dreams who’s so bland you’re likely to forget about her when she’s not on screen — also falls for the conventionally handsome, seemingly unserious Jonah, Jerome only tries harder to win her. Copying Jonah’s style (one of his “experiments”), he interprets their coupling as a choice: he can pursue his own ambition to be the “greatest artist of the 21st century” or he (sell out to) win the girl, whom he stubbornly sees as the emblem of his own artistic greatness.
This circular reasoning is what the art world is all about. As the movie has it, all roads lead to corruption. The greatness Jerome seeks so fervently is what precisely what he cannot see and embodies perfectly, an other-bludgeoning, relentlessly self-involved assessment of “art.” While he dismisses his blissfully plunging-ahead classmates as tasteless Neanderthals, he is reminded repeatedly that they appreciate one another’s work. The historical trick is that such eyes of beholders do tend to determine “greatness,” at least in the sense of sales and legends.
The more literal version of Jerome’s judgmental attitude comes in the form of a not-so-compelling subplot about a local serial killer. While befuddled detectives and sensational media coverage inspire Vince to structure his “authentic” film project so that it more or less follows the case — and to assert that the killer in his film is making an “artistic statement” — Art School Confidential finds less to say about this clichéd subplot. And that’s a point in itself: for all the seeming celebration of originality and rebellion, repetition remains a most effective form of art.