James Franco| When art imitates life, imitating art, imitating life, imitating art......

As the latest issue of Esquire notes, "The Guy is Everywhere"
I get dizzy when I try to make sense of James Franco. I recall back in April when a colleague circulated an Artnet link about Franco being chosen to represent the United States in the 2011 Venice Biennale. Of course he wasn't-- it turned out to be a great and very effective April Fool's joke-- but it left the lingering question about who this actor was and why the art world was paying so much attention to him. Fast forward to this past summer, and I am left asking week after week, who is this guy and why is he always on my arts-related Twitter feeds? As the latest Esquire cover correctly points out, Franco is everywhere. But why?

In many ways, Franco is a walking, breathing contradiction. Recognized as a Hollywood actor by most people, Franco came to international attention playing a superhero in the Spiderman franchise and has since appeared in mainstream films ranging from Tristan and Isolde (2006), Pineapple Express (2008), Milk (2008), and a host of 2010 summer films including the Oprah approved Eat, Pray, Love (2010). At the same time, Franco has successfully positioned himself as a "thinking" actor and performer, taking on more "serious" acting roles in small, independent projects while simultaneously attending Columbia University's and Brooklyn College's M.F.A. programs and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts graduate film program in 2009/10 (recall Lady Gaga's connection). He is now apparently beginning a Ph.D. program in English and Film Studies at Yale, and some minor controversy is already being reported about the university denying his request to teach undergraduate classes as a TA (can you imagine?). An important aspect of Franco's interests therefore include the integration of performative and conceptual art theories which are routine aspects of MFA and Ph.D. art/film history training, but often come off as bizarre to many outside the art school context.

Franco playing "Franco" the multimedia artist on ABC's
General Hospital (courtesy ABC)
Take for example his recent role on the daytime soap General Hospital (already weird), where he plays the reoccurring role of the fictional "Franco" a multimedia artist like himself (weirder), who holds art exhibitions of works that the actor Franco makes, which are then promoted in real life galleries (confused yet?). Still, the recent trend of celebrities as artists does successfully initiate dialogue about the significance of contemporary art movements to a much broader public (see the new Click and Poll topic on my blog's home page concerning Joaquin Phoenix as another case in point), and so when the Wall Street Journal publishes Franco's thoughts on performance art, another audience is initiated into the world of art ideas. Instead of being cynical about it, I am trying to remain intrigued and wonder if this is a sign that the mainstream culture as a whole is undergoing part of a radical shift where the mechanisms of celebrity culture will be subverted and exposed more effectively. In other words, Franco's either convincingly mediating the often polarized worlds of high art and popular culture, or he is duping all of us. I bothered to blog about him, so I guess the joke might also be on me (but I would let him be my TA-- no one would skip class).

**The range of Franco material on YouTube reflects the contradictions I have tried to conjure in my post. See for example this experimental film by Carter, Erased James Franco, where Franco plays both himself "re-enacting" every television and film performance from his career-- he calls it his favourite performance-- and this most recent clip of Franco playing Allen Ginsberg (very well I might add) in the soon to be released biopic Howl. At the other extreme, see this spoof of Franco's Gucci commercial outtakes. But the clip I have chosen dovetails nicely with my post on Marina Abramovic from last week (ironically enough, it will be appearing in the upcoming Abramovic movie I discussed). Here is the oddly humorous video of Franco visiting Abramovic's "The Artist is Present" exhibition at MoMA-- I am calling this "The Celebrity-as-Artist meets the Artist-as-Celebrity." I hope you enjoy the bizarre juxtaposition as much as I did.