The Gauntlet
By Vikram Murthi

Art Talent Show
Dir. Adéla Komrzý and Tomas Bojar, Czech Republic, no distributor

Art Talent Show opens on a hallway as seen from the perspective of a stoic woman sitting behind a window, her body reflected against the glass; in the next shot, a few young students carrying portfolios shuffle up to her and she tells them where they can submit their work. This image holds obvious sway for co-directors Adéla Komrzý and Tomas Bojar, whose film chronicles the grueling entrance exams for the Academy of Fine Arts (AVU) in Prague, the oldest art college in the Czech Republic. The school’s professors are only slightly cheerier and more engaged than the receptionist in question, but they both stand before the gates of a prestige institution and choose who can enter. (Ironically, the receptionist, who has the power to unlock the main door from behind her desk, also chooses who can leave.)

Shot over the course of one week, Art Talent Show focuses on the selection processes of three different studios—New Media, Painting, and Graphic Design (or “Printmaking,” according to the AVU website)—each overseen by two professors. Komrzý and Bojar include a brief and amusing prologue-of-sorts that covers the exam’s first round, which mostly exists to eliminate the weakest applicants, but they primarily follow the multi-part second round, which involves a written test, a portrait exercise, a prompt-driven free-form art assignment, and an interview portion that comprises much of Art Talent Show’s running time. Through Šimon Dvořáček’s observational photography, which leans on both elegant wide-shot compositions and intimate close-ups, Komrzý and Bojar immerse their audience in the examination procedure while maintaining fly-on-the-wall distance.

While the film provides access to discussions between professors and applicants, we only catch glimpses of the candidates’ art, a savvy, fitting choice considering that the professors, despite their different metrics, principally test artistic approach and attitude in their exams rather than the evaluation of any completed work. The professors’ pedagogical methods, which are clarified in their interviews with the students, encourage and sometimes force the students to reconsider the hand-me-down clichés and platitudes they use to express themselves. Vladimír Kokolia in the Graphic Design studio pointedly criticizes a student for saying she “does what she feels like,” arguing that every artist who comes through the school does so, unless they’re actively making themselves do something uncomfortable. The queer professors, Kača Olivová and Darina Alster, of the New Media studio take a softer, but no less demanding approach to their discussions; their conversations with young, queer applicants lead them to question their own inherited biases regarding identity, e.g., if bisexuality is an antiquated concept in the age of pansexuality and gender fluidity.

The most compelling sections in Art Talent Show feature professors Marek Meduna and Petr Dub from the Painting studio, who adopt a more provocative, quasi-Socratic tactic for their conversations. They frequently push the students to reconsider their principles or artistic reasoning. When asked if there is a taboo that art should never break, an applicant mentions blood, but after a few rounds of back and forth, she concedes that blood would be a preferable artistic medium than feces. Another candidate says that there’s no artistic value to murder, but quickly compromises that suicide or self-immolation can have aesthetic worth. A potential student confidently argues that the market determines an artist’s work the minute they become successful, but Meduna and Dub question such received wisdom to the point where he admits he wouldn’t mind being Damien Hirst, arguably the world’s most commodified artist. Neither pettiness nor empty contrarianism drives these interviews, which aren’t designed to bait the students or even to make them discomfited, but rather probe them so they reject the rigidity of received wisdom.

Befitting the inevitable pretensions of an art-school environment, Komrzý and Bojar employ the language of comedy throughout Art Talent Show. Sometimes it emerges in spare lines of dialogue, like when one applicant soberly says, “My installation is dedicated both to my cunt and to what comes next,” and other times it’s through editor Hedvika Hansalová’s cuts or insert shots, like the reveal of a non-binary entrant’s portfolio of penis illustrations, a la Superbad, after her lengthy explanation of why they use the plural “we” to refer to themselves in the past tense. Later, the same applicant explains that while smoking is harmful to unsuspecting passersby and children, it’s also good for nature because it kills people. Komrzý and Bojar clearly sympathize with the candidates, but they also poke mild fun at them; essentially, they’re aligned with the professors, who embrace their students’ outré, ultra-sincere affectations while also having a sense of humor about them because they’re all ultimately operating in the same milieu. Art Talent Show mercifully rejects the punching up/down binary that pervades so much comedy discourse and simply accepts that you can empathize with people while also teasing them. It’s funny to watch a student brashly describe her idea for an installation that embraces the notion of spreading AIDS between newlyweds to ensure monogamy, but it’s also somewhat admirable to hear her confidently respond to questions of intent with, “Because I can and because I want to.”

Occasionally, Komrzý and Bojar contrast the insular bubble of AVU with scenes of people adjacent to the art world. We watch the models who posed for the portraits look at some of the works-in-progress with both curiosity and irritation. (“If a cleaning lady came in, she would clean it all!” one chuckles while another responds to a video installation by saying, “I feel like punching somebody when I watch this shit.”) Ultimately, they have a much more affectionate take on the students than the receptionists who make transphobic wisecracks about the “creeps who dress up like women.” These few-and-far-between moments confirm the banal and ugly prejudices of outsiders who view artists as weirdo elitists and in turn endorse the earnestness of the young candidates, who merely want to refine their work in an academic setting.

The interstitial moments outside the exams hew closest to Frederick Wiseman’s bird’s-eye institutional methodology. However, it was gratifying to read Komrzý cite Claire Simon’s The Competition, which similarly follows the selection process for the prestigious French film school La Fémis, in the press kit as an influence on Art Talent Show. Both films use a rigorous examination as a microcosm for the vagaries of aesthetic priorities and changing tastes. Art Talent Show illustrates how hyper-individualism dominates artistic philosophy in the younger generation; many prospective students talk about wanting to communicate their essence or their worldview with their work. (“I’m going to be a bit indiscreet here: are you such a wonderful person that you have to make others want to know you?” Kokolia asks a candidate.) Komrzý and Bojar don’t frame this perspective as some kind of deficiency, but rather as the inevitable conclusion of embracing liberalism in the former Soviet bloc following the fall of USSR. (Komrzý astutely notes that AVU and its artwork were heavily controlled by state ideology in the 1950s.)

As much as some of the teachers bemoan this reality, they also understand their role is to break their potential students out of such socially prescribed dogma and push them to think a little more collectively. Komrzý and Bojar have less to say about art itself, or its role in contemporary society, than they do aboutthe value of pedagogy, and how a firm, supportive environment can embolden people to leave their comfort zones so they can create the work that would seem to lie just outside their grasp. Art Talent Show’s various trials effectively uphold Margaret Mead’s classic educational thesis: it’s important to teach children how to think rather than to what to think.