What is art? A question posed by director Tim Burton in his new movie “Big Eyes,” which tells the weirder-than-fiction story of, Margaret Keane, the painter of the waiflike figures with sad faces and oversized peepers that first gazed at and transfixed Americans in the fifties.
After divorcing her husband, Margaret, leaves home with her daughter and heads to San Francisco, where she meets and marries free-spirited charmer Walter Keane, who parlays his shrewdness and marketing skills into lifting his wife’s painting from obscurity to the most popular and profitable works of art in the United States, in spite of the scorn of art critics who decried it as tasteless hack work. But this success comes at a price. Walter publicly takes full credit for the painting, and sequesters Margaret in a secret studio in their house, where she labours round the clock to keep up with the public’s insatiable demand for her saucer-eyed waifs, while he lavishes in the indulgence of their fortune, living like a superstar.
After a decade of servitude and falsity, Margaret leaves her creepy husband, and in 1970 she publicly exposes his lie in a press interview. Walter reacts furiously, accusing her of lying and cheating, and insisting that he is the artist behind the paintings. But in a dramatic court appearance, he is exposed and humiliated when he fails to draw one painting before the jury, while Margaret produces hers within 53 minutes.
Walter continues to insist that he is the big eyes painter, in spite of failing to come up with a single one of them, and dies broke in 2000. On the other hand, Margaret, who is now 88, continues to paint the big-eyed figures and exhibits them in her San Francisco gallery in different forms, with prices ranging from $200 to $15,000, to the chagrin of art critics who still consider her work commercial kitsch.
“There was something about it that people call it kitsch or whatever,” Burton exclaims, when I meet him at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills. “But at the same time, it had a power and inspired a whole range of knockoff artists, and even today you see a lot of modern artists that are influenced by these things, and even my daughter has big-eyed stuffed animals.”
A fan and a collector of Keane’s painting, the gothic director has been deeply influenced by them as evinced in his movies such as “Beetlejuice”, which is imbued with oversized-eyed characters, and Sally’s character in “Nightmare before Christmas.”
In defending Keane’s work, he also invokes the late American iconic artist, Andy Warhol, who quipped: “(Keane’s work) has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” Mind you, Warhol was a proponent of commercial art, hence his support of Keane is not surprising.
“I just think it taps into something not verbal,” Burton enthuses. “It taps into something subconscious, which is why I think it’s so interesting. It’s an unanswerable question of what is art? Is it art, or is it kitsch?. This is an interesting question. And that’s why I think images come and go and some stay with you like a dream, and these remained with me.”
Indeed, the big eyes paintings have awed and inspired Burton, who is known for his dark horror movies such as “Frankenweenie,” “Sleepy Hollow,” and “Dark Shadows”, since childhood, because he found them scary. “I grew up watching monster movies and in some ways, it’s like a horror movie, and I don’t know why. Look at now, all these horror movies with scary children; it’s a whole genre.” he laughs.
Born in 1958, Burton’s infatuation with these images stemmed from growing up in a middlebrow family in Burbank, a working class neighbourhood in LA that was not exposed to the modern and abstract art, which was prevalent among society’s upper and highly-educated classes during the fifties and sixties. “I didn’t experience art really as a youngster,” Burton laughs. “The environment I grew up in didn’t know art, and this was the only art that I knew about. I grew up in a culture of television generation, so my DNA is a large percentage of what might be considered kitsch.”
Kitsch art first emerged in the mid nineteenth century, when the middle classes, born out of the industrial revolution, began seeking entertainment, and they found it in cheap work, which was a poor imitation of the high art that was reserved for the upper classes. And in the mid twentieth century, this form of art became the target of enlightened liberals, who decried it as bad taste and commercial, designed to stultify rather than edify the masses. “I don’t personally consider it that,” Burton says dismissively.
Burton’s remarks are not surprising. After all, he himself was not immune from the lashing of highbrow critics, who excoriated his drawings, which were exhibited in major cities around the world a couple of years ago, as devoid of artistic merit, in spite of an overwhelming reception by the multitude. “That’s why I understand the Keanes,” he exclaims. “Critics say my work is shit and not art, but people went to see it, and it inspired children to draw. I never try to consider myself as one thing, and I prefer to just try things and see what happens.”
Burton concedes that his sense of being misunderstood by some and the feeling of alienation, and his passion for the new and the different were the inspiration behind his movies’ characters, such as the eponymous Ed Wood, whose work, like Keane’s, was ridiculed and reviled by critics. “I relate and empathise with these people. The contradictory response to my work connects me to them. I have had things where people go about the same project, oh, it’s so much lighter, or it’s so much darker. Well, how can it be light to half the people and dark to the other half? It’s an interesting question that I have never been able to answer. It’s always fascinating how a person can look at one thing and everybody had a slightly different reaction, but that’s what creates individuals and I think that we are always fighting in this society to be individuals,” says the eccentric master, who invariably colours his dark movies with humour, and often collaborates with actor Johnny Depp, who injects them with his playful spirit and innocent demeanour.
Keane’s detractors don’t dispute the diversity of artistic tastes from one person to another, but they attribute it to people’s ignorance in art, suggesting that high art doesn’t make an impression on the untrained eye or ear, hence there is a need to teach the masses, from all layers of society, how to perceive the different forms of art in order to elevate their appreciation of it and enable them to distinguish between the real and spurious.
Burton rejects this contention, insisting that it’s up to the individual himself to judge a work as art according to his emotional and intellectual response to it, and no one else has the right to impose a specific artistic taste on him. “Some people tell me ‘this is a major artist,’ but I will either respond or I won’t. And then there are some people who will go along with whatever they say. Oh, he says it’s art, so it’s art. Do you like to give those people that kind of power? I like to look at something and respond to it, and have my own feelings about it, and not be told about it. And there’s the use of marketing, so when one thing gets too powerful versus another, it creates an imbalance and that’s where it becomes a problem.”
Ironically, Burton’s work benefits from one of the most powerful marketing machines, Hollywood, which has invested enormous sums of money in promoting his movies, turning him into one of the world’s most successful and profitable filmmakers, which has undoubtedly contributed to the current imbalance in the film business, whereby low-budget independent films can’t compete with Hollywood movies, like his, in cinema theatres. And as “Big Eyes” demonstrates, Margaret would’ve never gained the artistic recognition, fame and fortune, without her husband’s genius marketing.
“Big Eyes,” doesn’t really answer the question that it poses about the definition of art, but it does what art is meant to do: it stirs your emotions, provokes your thoughts and ignites your imagination, and its impact on you is not fleeting. Does that make it high or low art?