The question asked by Peter Rosen's documentary Who Gets To Call It Art? is not just an excellent one, it's also probably the most important question asked by critics of modern art. Once Warhol used his Brillo boxes and soup cans to update Duchamp's ready-made concept for mass conception, thus helping to throw open the doors of the art world to (seemingly) any and all, a procession of querulous viewers starting asking just what made that pile of twisted metal in the corner of the gallery Art? While Rosen doesn't ever answer the question in its totality, the film does at least answer it in a smaller sense by focusing so much of its energy on the life and achievements of legendary modern art curator Henry Geldzahler. Who gets to call it art? This guy did, and not you. So there.
As the film readily acknowledges, art never has been, and was likely never really supposed to be a thing of populism. As artist after artist from the hothouse ferment of the 1960s New York scene intones amidst Rosen's jittery and fun editing collages, they were really making the art for each other. It was really the same few hundred people during that time roaming from one gallery opening to another, seeing the new Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, or James Rosenquist and then going home and making some art themselves. Or just talking about it. Call it pretentious or self-indulgent, but what Rosen does better than many other chroniclers of the art world is show not just how truly exhilarating it was to be present at such a pivotal cultural time, but also how extraordinarily enjoyable it was. And Geldzahler was at the center of it all, seemingly.
More gadfly than stiff appreciator, Geldzahler was the scion of a Belgian diamond fortune, and loved nothing more than art and artists. A brash young Turk nattering on about modern art in the stuffy confines of the Metropolitan Museum, where he was curator, Geldzahler probably did more than anybody else in the country to advance the cause of modern American art, most especially those of the Pop movement. And as Rosen puts it, this was a good thing, with Pop's leading lights as the bright and optimistic reaction of the late 1950s and early '60s to the dour interiority of the abstract expressionists like de Kooning and Pollock, whose energies had started to run empty. As Robert Rauschenburg notes dryly, "You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself."
Given that Geldzahler was hardly shy about his opinions, was set up in arguably the nation's single most important museum, and loved nothing more than roaming downtown studios and discovering new art, it's little surprise that his taste exerted a disproportionate affect on the cultural scene. The film stops just short of saying that Geldzahler was responsible for establishing what is currently seen as the Pop art canon (his old friend Warhol, especially), but given the controversy and acclaim that greeted his landmark 1970 modern art survey at the Met, not to mention everyone who was and wasn't included in it (no small matter of controversy itself), it wouldn't be a hard argument to make.
Whether or not this matters, of course, depends on the viewer's perspective. Rosen has a great and instinctual feel for the art world, and presents it in a friendly enough manner, with Pop-esque frivolity and humor -- the film is nothing if not approachable. By pinning himself so closely to Geldzahler, though, Rosen handicaps himself. By spending so much time with these artists, a wily and voluble bunch for the most part, it's hard then for us to take too seriously the smart but rather self-important stylings of a professional aesthete like Geldzahler. What's next, a film about Clement Greenberg and his essays on Pollock?