Brad Pitt? Johnny Depp? Pierce Brosnan? They’re not just Hollywood actors. They’re the names the art world is buzzing about. But why and what does it reveal?

Depp-Heard Trial

Actor Johnny Depp leaves the Fairfax County Courthouse in Fairfax, Va., last May during his defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard. “In July, Johnny Depp’s debut painting collection sold out at a London gallery in record time, fetching millions,” Patricia Leavy writes. Craig Hudson/Associated Press

From van Gogh to Modigliani, many of the world’s most revered artists never enjoyed success in their lifetime. That changed in the 1980s when the Mary Boone Gallery in New York’s SoHo became the epicenter of the American pop art movement. The artists she represented – Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel and Roy Lichtenstein – became celebrities. The most famous of all, Andy Warhol, was a fixture in that scene. Warhol played with ideas about celebrity in his art, creating iconic paintings of the rich and famous, ironically making himself rich and famous. The explosion between art and fame that occurred during this time was so powerful gallerist Mary Boone became just as famous as the artists with a 1982 New York magazine cover story dubbing her “The New Queen of the Art Scene.”

The blurring of art and fame that we are seeing today isn’t new, but it has changed. In the 1980s, artists became famous. Today, the famous become artists.

In July, Johnny Depp’s debut painting collection sold out at a London gallery in record time, fetching millions. Brad Pitt’s sculptures were recently on public display in Finland, drawing worldwide attention. Now Pierce Brosnan has announced his paintings will be exhibited at an art gallery in Santa Monica, California, beginning May 13. They are hardly the first celebs to try their hand at art. From David Bowie to a couple of Rolling Stones, there’s a long list who have used their platform to catapult themselves into the exclusive world of high-end art.

It’s not surprising that when A-listers premier their art, global attention follows. We seem insatiably fascinated by celebrities – we follow their social media accounts, scan tabloids and bid on celebrity auctions the way we used to play the lottery. Perhaps we assume their lives are better than those of us normal folks and we want a glimpse. Pitt said his sculptures are about “self-reflection” and what he’s “gotten wrong” in relationships. One could hardly avoid the public unraveling of his personal life in recent years, so it’s not surprising that many were curious about his artworks.

Actor Pierce Brosnan, at the premiere of the film “Black Adam” in London in October, has announced that his paintings will be shown at a Santa Monica, Calif., gallery, beginning May 13. Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

What is surprising though is what the recent wave of celebrity art reveals about the nature of the art world and the harsh reality most contemporary artists face.

On June 7, 2022 Angelica Villa reported in ARTnews that only 4% of half of all U.S. museum shows are dedicated to contemporary or modern artists. In other words, very few living artists ever have their work displayed in museums. Only 10% of art school graduates earn a living from their art. Only 0.000001% of artists become famous.

The art world is notoriously exclusive. You want to be an artist and show at a major gallery? Good luck. You’d have a better shot getting into Fort Knox and following up with dinner at The Lost Kitchen. It’s nearly impossible. At least for mere mortals. For celebrities, the red carpet is rolled out, ushering them into an elite sphere.

We know celebrities enjoy special treatment. How is this any different from the fast-tracking of actors-turned-musicians? Both Hollywood and the music industry are understood as branches of the entertainment business. Art has been held to a different standard. For better or worse, art has been distinguished from entertainment, elevated above it. Distinguishing art from pop culture has allowed the gatekeepers of the art world – gallerists and curators – to maintain an insular world and their esteemed placed within it. They claim there are objective qualities that make art exceptional, which they alone are qualified to judge. This new trend challenges their status and thus our notions about what makes art worthy of our attention. By unabashedly embracing celebrity art, perhaps a poorly hidden truth has been revealed. The art world is all about hype.

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