The Burnt Orange Heresy

“You’re not real,” Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) venomously tells her boyfriend, art critic James Figueras (Claes Bang) in Giuseppe Capotondi’s film The Burnt Orange Heresy. It’s a charge regularly leveled at critics, who are often portrayed as fake, facile parasites—carping wannabes who don’t understand the truth of art. The film dutifully reproduces most of these stereotypes. But it also, almost despite itself, suggests that it’s not critics who are inauthentic, but the labor relationships in which they find themselves.

The film’s clever plot opens with James in Italy delivering a lecture in which he invents a tragic backstory involving the Holocaust for a painting in order to fool a group of tourists into thinking it’s valuable. Criticism is a lie, and James, as a critic, is a liar, and worse than a liar. When art dealer Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) hires James to steal a painting from his tenant, reclusive and legendary painter Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), James readily agrees, because critics steal from artists, get it? James is so hollow that when he was a child, he dreamed, not of being a great painter, but of having his name on a banner outside an art museum. He lusts after words and appearances, rather than authentic beauty. His paranoid misunderstanding of everything about his girlfriend, Berenice, goes to show his lack of soul. Not despite being a critic, but because of it, James sees nothing and understands less.

In contrast, Debney quickly intuits Berenice’s worth, just as he understands the value of his own art. In fact, he refuses to produce art because he values it so highly; he will not be exploited by clever assholes like James, who want to turn his paint into words, and then into money. If you don’t work, you can’t be exploited. A blank canvas is unstained by labor. Like Bartleby, Debney prefers not to.

Or so Debney thinks. But it turns out you can’t escape the mechanics of capitalism just by opting out—at least, not if you accept a rent-free cottage as largesse from a capitalist. Debney’s very authenticity—his refusal to compromise his work—is easily and profitably commodified by James and Cassidy. His purity is their profit.

When purity is profit, you start to wonder if it is in fact purity. Wheeling out the gamely, mugging Sutherland to be an art star character certainly seems like a crassly commercial move; the movie is attempting to capitalize on his reputation just as Cassidy wants to capitalize on Debney’s. There’s the same dynamic with the stunt casting of Mick Jagger, an artist famous for enriching himself by appropriating the work of less successful blues performers. Jagger’s dry, smarmy presence is a reminder that it’s not just critics who can turn other’s labor into their own profit.

That appropriation of value is what Marx refers to as alienation of labor. It’s endemic in capitalism. The vast majority of people do not control their own working lives; like Debney, they have the product of their labor stripped from them. But it’s so common, so everyday, so ubiquitous, that we don’t notice.

Artists, in contrast, are supposed to have a privileged relationship to labor. We see them as happy producers, owners of their work, which springs from their genius alone. Or else we see them as people unfairly ignored and cast out, starving artists unrecognized in their own day. Artistic production is especially valued, and so its creators are seen as either truly free or unfairly constrained. Critics don’t have that kind of glamour, and so are seen as ugly vampires battened upon artist’s pure unalienated labor. The film is filled with references to flies and mosquitoes; in one scene a fly actually lands inside James’s nose as he’s sleeping, a bloodsucker sucking on a bloodsucker.

The truth, though, is that critics are mostly in the same position as anyone else, including artists—which is to say, we’re all trying to find some interest and enjoyment in our work while chasing an endless sequence of humiliating and precarious gigs for less and less remuneration. If critics are dishonest, or fake, or unreal, it’s not because they have committed a heresy against the pure beauty of art. It’s because no one gets to be true to themselves under capitalism.   v