What is art and how does it relate to society? Is its value determined by its popularity or originality? Is the goal profit or expressing one’s personal vision? These are some of the questions raised as we follow fiercely independent New York artist Robert Cenedella in his artistic journey through decades of struggling for creative expression.
Sandwiched between the Greatest Generation, which stormed the beaches of Normandy and built the behemoth American middle class, and the Baby Boomers, who overturned puritan social mores and drove a cultural revolution, is the Silent Generation. Born between the peak of the stock market bubble in the late 1920s and the darkest days of the Second World War in the 1940s, the Silent Generation was too young to have battled fascism in Europe, and too small to make the kind of social impact that the Baby Boomers did. Robert Cenedella, an artist born in 1940 is emblematic of this generation in many ways: the documentary “Art Bastard” tells his story.
Robert Cenedella is very much a twentieth century man. The bastard of an English professor, Cenedella came of age during the Red Scare and grew up in a very progressive household. Expelled from high school for writing an article criticizing the irrationality of atomic bomb drills, he decamped to an obscure art school, whereupon he unwittingly befriended the famous painter George Grosz. Cenedella is an almost Forrest Gump-like figure, a man whose life’s story would only have been possible in the era that he was born into.
“Art Bastard” is an up-close and personal examination of an artist, his work, and post-war America. Cenedella, by virtue of his socially conscious upbringing, had his hand on the pulse of the titanic struggle for racial and gender equality that was born in the 1960s. The film finds its strength by simply letting the subject talk and tell his life’s story – it quickly becomes clear that this is the only way “Art Bastard” could have worked. Despite the potential for droll subject matter, it is difficult to not be consistently amazed by the Cenedella’s tragicomic life.
Truth be told, I finished my screening of the film surprised that I had not heard of Robert Cenedella, and that even my most cosmopolitan friends seemed unaware of his existence or his impact on the art world. That fact alone made “Art Bastard” worth a viewing for me, and I suspect that will also be true for anyone who is equally in the dark about Cenedella and whether art should be valued by intrinsic or extrinsic attitudes. Ultimately, this is a worthwhile film that brilliantly exploits a relatively niche subject by making it palatable for the viewing audience.
While I hesitate to declare anything in life to be without flaw, it is difficult to isolate a major weakness of “Art Bastard.” Cenedella, roughhewn as he can be, is a likeable and relatable subject, and many viewers who experienced the events that influenced him may enjoy taking a nostalgic trip to a familiar time. The film is enjoyable and easy to digest, and with any luck, you may one day find yourself acing a “Final Jeopardy” question about Robert Cenedella.
Opens at the Angelika in Dallas Friday, June 24th