Art is very much a visual pursuit and film is an incredible way to learn about artists, their work, and their journeys into how they pursue their crafts. There really are few things that are more interesting than gaining insight into the inner workings of an artist’s creative process, and these documentaries delve into the world of these creatives in very different but equally thrilling ways. Art documentaries not only serve to show how established artists go about their work, they can also help us to understand and harness our own approaches towards creating, sparking new ideas in us along the way and offering a comforting reassurance that we are not alone in our desire to be different, innovative, and inspiring in our work.
The art documentaries listed below are just some of the amazing films about artists and creative processes that are available for your enjoyment. The ones that have been chosen have been selected for their incredible stories as well as for their entertainment purposes as pieces of cinema. So next time you’re itching to watch something and want to be inspired at the same time, look no further than this round-up of stellar art documentaries.
Director Doug Pray’s documentary Infamy sees him traveling from the South Bronx to San Francisco in order to track down and film six of America’s most influential graffiti artists. His purpose? To uncover how and why they’re willing to risk everything to make their mark on the cities’ public spaces. Refreshingly honest and at times hugely funny, Infamy doesn’t seek to pontificate whether or not what these artists are doing is wrong or right. Rather than expound the topic of graffiti’s morals, it simply presents the artists’ work as it is, in the present. We are taken on a journey through the exciting world of street art, and what a thrilling ride it is here in this fantastic film.
Cutie and the Boxer (2013)
Ushio Shinohara’s unique style of painting requires him to wear and use a pair of boxing gloves, becoming a sort of a pugilist Jackson Pollock as he jabs his canvases to life. However, while he might be the known and commercially successful member of his family, it is his wife Noriko Shinohara who emerges as the true hero of this story about art, love, family and sacrifice. This artistic couple have shared a life for 40 years and through it all, they have stood strong through artistic differences and personal strife. Director Zachary Heinzerling received an Oscar nomination for this film, and it is definitely not one to be missed.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)
The cover image of director Alison Klaymon’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry shows the notorious Chinese artist and activist giving the middle finger to his country, and nothing could summarise this film better than this rebellious picture. The doc follows Ai Weiwei’s artistic journey between 2008 and 2011, during which time he clashed with the Chinese government, was assaulted by the police, got detained in a Beijing airport, and was eventually imprisoned. Ai Weiwei’s story is truly one of strength and determination, never letting the obstacles and struggles he faced deter him from being the outspoken artist he is.
Waste Land (2010)
Lucy Walker, a two-time Oscar nominated director, takes to the streets of Brazil as she follows artist Vik Muniz into the largest landfill in the world, where he works with a group of trash pickers in order to turn refuse into high art. Walker has a distinct way of making her art documentary feel like two separate films as she tells one story, with another, deeper layer of meaning and importance running alongside it. This truly is a wonderful and inspiring story about the transformative power of art and collaboration, and should be viewed by anyone who believes in the higher purpose of creativity.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010)
Objectivity is arguably one of the most important elements in documentary filmmaking, leaving the viewer the space to come to their own conclusions without a biased angle. However, Tamra Davis’ 2010 doc about Jean-Michel Basquiat uses her own friendship with the renowned New York City artist to elevate and strengthen her film about him. The film includes interviews with Julian Schnabel, Larry Gagosian and other notable art world figures, but it is Basquiat himself who shines through in a completely revelatory and affecting way as he is captured in conversation with Davis at the time his star was truly on the rise. For real insight into this revered artist’s work, life, and the many challenges he faced in his pursuit of success, this documentary is a must watch.
Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)
Los Angeles-based French expat Thierry Guetta sets about trying to capture footage of some of the world’s most famous graffiti artists. In his quest, he manages to stumble upon the most infamous and mysterious of them all - Banksy. Although Banksy at first agrees to let Guetta film him, we soon see the artist getting exasperated by Guetta’s lack of filming technique and soon it’s Banksy who is behind the camera with Guetta trying his hand at street art. This is the ultimate case of role reversal, and the result is an incredible mockumentary that leads you in unexpected, thrilling directions. Just like Banksy’s art, this doc keeps you guessing the whole way through.
Painters Painting (1973)
For those wanting a side of history with their art, the 1973 documentary Painters Painting will give you in-depth insight into the New York art scene between 1940 and 1970. This pioneering film covers the progression from abstraction to the pop art movement in the USA, stopping along the way to focus on some of the most famous names in art, including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Jules Olitski, and many more. Whether you need to brush up on your art history or you’re an art enthusiast wanting a peek into the interior lives of these incredible artists, this 70s documentary is as relevant and interesting today as it was when it first came out.
Beautiful Losers (2008)
This fascinating documentary celebrates one of the most influential cultural moments that defined a generation. In the early 1990s, a group of like-minded outsiders banded together in a small NYC storefront gallery in order to share their love of DIY (Do-It-Yourself) subcultures such as skateboarding, surfing, punk, hip-hop and graffiti. This group created art that reflected who they were as individuals and the lifestyles they led. They developed their craft with little to no help from the “establishment” art world, creating in the process a cultural movement that would change pop culture forever. The film focuses particularly on Shepard Fairey, OBEY founder and the man behind the Barack Obama “Hope” poster, award-winning pro skater Ed Templeton, Harmony Korine who wrote the cult favourite film KIDS and directed GUMMO, and Mike Mills who designed the album covers for Beck, Beastie Boys, and Sonic Youth.
So there we have it, a selection of the finest art documentaries available, ready for you to delve into. Get your creative gears turning and tune into one, or all, of these amazing films as soon as you can. Art is meant to be seen, heard, felt and made, so do like these artists have done and start creating today.
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