Since Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, the place of the artist in society has been inseparable from the myth of the artist’s life. In this lecture, we take a look at the kinds of stories society has told about artists in the last century, and what they tell us about the changing place of art in the contemporary imagination—specifically, through a century’s worth of depictions of artists on film. Starting with the 1934 film The Affairs of Cellini, about the philandering Renaissance goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, and ranging through John Houston’s florid Toulouse-Lautrec biopic Moulin Rouge (1952), Julian Schnabel’s knowing Basquiat (1996), and Julie Taymor’s steamy Frida (2002), we’ll look at the evolution of the artist on film, and how certain archetypal conflicts and character traits recur and shift emphasis. In some ways, it is this repeating myth, more even than the art to which it is attached, that society needs from its artists. Its evolution and mutation tells us a lot about how visual art persists into the present.

Lecture presented in collaboration with the Conversations in Contemporary Art series of the Concordia University MFA Studio Art programme. The lecture will be held at the Sir George Williams University Alumni Auditorium of Concordia University.


Ben Davis is an art critic living and working in New York City. He is the author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket, 2013) and currently National Art Critic for artnet News. He was an editor of The Elements of Architecture (Taschen, 2018). Recent essays have appeared in the books Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good (MIT Press, 2016) and The Future of Public Space (Metropolis, 2018). His writings have been featured in Adbusters, The Brooklyn Rail, e-Flux Journal, Frieze, New York, The New York Times, Slate, The Village Voice, and many other venues.