James Franco, Performance Art, and the Question of Pretentiousness.

James Franco behind the scenes at the Oscars-- a Twitpic posted on his new blog
What happens when a graduate student becomes a celebrity performance artist and then agrees to host the Oscars? This and this and this is what happens-- and it is all happening to James Franco right now. Last year I pondered the cultural zeitgeist that had gathered around this seemingly midrange Hollywood actor who had catapulted himself to the center of attention in the New York art world. At that time, I posted about Franco’s uncanny ability to initiate dialogue about significant art theory discourse in unexpected ways and his apparent goal of subverting and exposing the mechanisms of celebrity culture. One of my students who is now working on an essay concerning the enigma of Franco’s approach to avant-garde gesture found a great YouTube clip where the actor’s appearance on General Hospital even includes the word and concept of “dialectic” in the script (see below). Franco, who plays the reoccurring role of the fictional "Franco" a multimedia artist like himself, has cleverly utilized the declining soap opera format as a stage upon which to enact his performative and possibly even Situationist inspired detournements. As Franco himself explains in a statement about his approach to art-making, “Performance art can seem pretentious, but it can also be quite mischievous and playful.”

Anne Hathaway and James Franco co-hosting the awards
was all about appealing to a "young and hip" demographic.
Franco tweeted and streamed live images from the event
(image courtesy of PopEater
But this approach clearly backfired Sunday night. Franco’s appearance as co-host at the Academy Awards (fitting with the “young and hip” demographic that the Academy is now targeting) resulted in some of the most scathing and personal attacks on any individual agreeing to the position, eclipsing even Ricky Gervais’s controversial performance at the Golden Globes last month. Part of the problem stemmed from Franco’s apparent disinterest and apathy with his duties, along with claims that he was unprepared, or worse yet, stoned. Clearly, for anyone who is familiar with Franco’s personal style and way of speaking on camera as himself, he was simply being himself. In that sense, it is unfair to think he would have magically transformed for the event, especially if asked to appear as a host.

Yet at another level, there was a way in which Franco appeared to deliberately thumb his nose at the traditions of the Oscars, and this was what sent most observers over the edge. But would anyone expect anything less of a self-declared performance artist working in the tradition of the avant-garde? His low-key and banal approach, his ironic tweets and live pics posted between commercial breaks, and his departure from Los Angeles immediately following the awards to get back to his PhD studies were not surprising moves. Still, his actions were mostly interpreted as signs of an overinflated ego and yes, indications of pretentiousness. Should he have pulled a Jean-Luc Godard and refused to participate? Perhaps. In any case,  it is clear that he may have underestimated how difficult it would be to navigate the clear contradiction of his chosen roles as Hollywood actor and contemporary artist in front of a billion people on live television.

Franco's colourful (and graffiti inspired) response to the Yale Daily News and a student critic
(image courtesy of IvyGate)

Not surprisingly, the most bitter commentary the past few days has come from within academia itself prompting questions concerning Franco’s integrity and aims as a visual/performance artist. The Yale Daily News (the college newspaper of Franco’s current university home) published a blog post critical of Franco and his intended use or overuse of social media, prompting Franco to post his own reply with a NSFW graffitied Twitpic (see above). Cokey Cohen, the student columnist who originally wrote the blog, responded by stating that “combined with his Oscars hosting performance and in accordance with the opinion of commenters on my last blog, I'm becoming convinced that James Franco's whole life is a form of postmodern performance art. In that context, his Twitter fits right in.” The Chronicle of Higher Education also joined the charge by publishing a series of sarcastic tweets about Franco created under the ironically titled #JamesFrancoFacts. Most telling however have been the comments appearing under all of these collective posts debating the merits of Franco as artist and cultural provocateur.

Once again, I am left to conclude as I did with my first post on Franco last year that I have taken the time to blog about all of this, so his strategies are still clearly paying off. And even if Franco damages his Hollywood career and academic reputation with what he pulled at the Oscars, only time will tell if he is in fact contributing to a successful practice as a performance artist. The conversations concerning art and subversion continue, and as long as they do, he succeeds.

James Franco as Franco on General Hospital followed by an assessment of James Franco as himself on Sunday night's Oscar telecast.