Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Victor Kanefsky sets out to show that both definitions of the titular “B” word are fitting descriptions of the unfairly obscure NYC artist Robert Cenedella. The artist learned at age six that the man he called Daddy was not his biological father, and then later his decades-long battle against the cliquish art world establishment relegated him to a career that was stifled at most every turn. In an interesting twist, Mr. Cenedella (now age 76) has embraced his life as an outsider, and used it as inspiration for his incredible paintings and drawings.
Much of the film comes directly from interviews with the engaging, opinionated and often quite funny Mr. Cenedella. One of his best and most insightful (to his persona) quotes is: “It’s not what they show that bothers me. It’s what they don’t show.” He is of course discussing museums and art galleries, and how the recurring theme of “legitimacy” is decided by a relative few, thereby determining what the public is allowed to see … which in turn impacts what pieces are bought and sold.
Due to his relative obscurity (I knew nothing of the artist prior this doc), Kanefsky includes a biographical structure that begins with an unstable childhood and continues with his tutelage under German artist George Grosz … Cenedella’s mentor for art and life. With direction such as “think with your hand”, Grosz inspired the young artist to transfer his observant eye to the canvas and paper.
Unfortunately for Cenedella, his development as an artist paralleled the boom of modern abstract art … something that didn’t play well for the man who captured the energy and people of NYC on the page through satirical group caricatures. He was termed the anti-Warhol, and the film presents the 1965 “Yes Art” showcase as the biggest achievement of Cenedella’s career. And this exposes the only real weakness with the film – we never really understand the economics of Cenedella’s art. Did he sell paintings? How did he earn a living? We know he sold a lot of “I Like Ludwig” buttons, and we know he later painted a wall mural at Le Cirque restaurant, but the movie would have us believe Cenedella was an immensely talented painter who should be living in poverty based on his inability to get accepted by the art world.
This muddled point is key because so much of the film is dedicated to Cenedella’s disgust with the commercial side of the industry, and how critics and the power brokers have turned the art world into a haven of collectors who buy and sell for profit, rather than enjoyment. What determines the value of art? It’s a question as old as the cave drawings. Is the value in the aesthetics, the emotion or the monetary return? Cenedella believes the public should be allowed to decide for themselves, rather than being spoon fed only what the elite determine “good enough”.
Robert Cenedella proves to be a fascinating subject for a film, and it’s a reminder that some of the best documentaries introduce us to interesting people to whom we might ordinarily not be exposed. When Cenedella asks “If you compromise with art, why be an artist?” he is really telling us to be true to ourselves. It’s a message we should take to heart … he certainly has.
watch the trailer: